John Scofield is taller than you think and far from being a stern jazz icon he never seems to stop smiling and is disarmingly cool. A guitarist who has been through many changes stylistically "Sco" has always had a voice, an enviable possession in a world of imitator's and clones. Debuting with Billy Cobham's band back in the mid 70s it was his four year stint with Miles Davis's 1980s funk line up that brought him to much wider recognition. Since then John has pursued a successful solo career that has produced a huge body of work that has always seen him seeking out new territory both compositionally and sonically. His angular and often "outside" improvisations have placed him in the highest echelon of jazz's guitar elite, a contemporary of the likes of Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie Scofield has grown up along side these guitar guru's refining his own voice and approach to become instantly recognizable. With his new album "Bump" he has brought the sound of 1960s inventors of funk, The Meters bang up to date with samples and ambient background sounds that are closer to Portishead than Cole Porter. Despite his new sonic searches he still retains his incredible compositional skills, sense of the profound and the importance of a great melody.
I met this musical chameleon to find out what makes him tick and who and what are his inspirations.
MF What prompts you to suddenly change from say an album like "Quiet" to move in to a more funky style like "A Go Go" and now in to "Bump"? There's a logical progression from "A Go Go" to "Bump" but…
JS But not from the acoustic album, to and from anything, yeh. It's just um, I wasn't thinking about it so much. I just wanted make an album of acoustic guitar. Before it was guitar I wanted to write some stuff for a big horn section and have it be lyrical harmonic music not funky, not like the stuff I've done with Joe Lovano either. Then I thought well I'll play acoustic guitar on the whole album because it will make it different. And you know I am trying to make albums that have a focus"
MF Every album that you have done has a very distinct feel to it it always a whole body of work. Do you do that consciously?
JS. Yeh, because I figured you might as well. I did do a couple of records that were more mixed up and had some sort of jazz stuff on it, you the idioms were mixed up on, and I thought they didn't fair as well as albums. So I thought I might as well try and stick to one thing.
MF Who influences some of the more filmic sounds and atmospheric pieces like "Kubric" from A Go Go, what films, authors do like or is related to other stuff?
JS I'm not a film connoisseur although I like it a lot, and I read some but I'm not too good on that. I don't know it's that stuff that we've heard all piled together, you know I mean you could say Bernard Hermann and stuff, you know from Hitchcock movies but not really it's more like all the 20th century music. You know and from contemporary classical music that I have heard again. Then how that came to jazz and the way that all the jazz guys who have that in them like Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett everybody writes some little stuff like that, Joe Zawinul whatever. Using these modern chords and then I've done that on the guitar, you know all the ECM guys or whatever, all that. Understanding from a long time back how to try and put little pieces like that together. So it's not any one place.
MF On "Bump" there is no horn player. "A Go Go" didn't have a horn player either.
JS But there's no organ! No organ, that's one thing when I made this record I said well I want to continue funk, funk-ish type stuff, but without organ. So it's just guitar, a lot of guitar.
MF The new arrangements are much more textural, with sparse picked lines and lots of feedback. Is that coming from any sounds that you might have heard in modern trip hop or sampling?
JS First of all getting Mark de Gil Antoni from Soul Coughing the guy with the samples, I love that band and I wanted to ask him to come because he is responsible for the sonic landscape in that group. So he added his little bits and touches, it turned out that we worked really well together, and I'd never worked with anybody who was a sample person really before. But yeh I'm intrigued with all that stuff, you know I played some with DJ Logic in New York, he started sampling of records and that sort of thing, which is similar. So yeh, the trip hop thing it's the next step if you are in to funk jazz, to incorporate some of that stuff. I'm also wary of it.
MF Yeh you don't want to sell out and go all cheesey.
JS Yeh, well you know the thing is what does DJ mean? It means a guy who plays records (laughs) I make records not play them! So for me it needs someone like Mark de Gil Antoni who approaches this stuff with incredible taste. Then there's this other famous DJ who I was listening to from over here who uses all like early Weather Report stuff, plays bass too. He's famous…
MF Yes, he called Squarepusher.
JS. Yeh exactly.
MF He's a good bass player he's pretty fantastic actually.
JS Yeh, he is. I almost cracked up because I knew where all his samples were coming from, they were coming from all these early Weather Report albums, not the Weather Report stuff that was famous, but l the Weather Report stuff that wasn't famous! (Laughs)
MF Your playing and your arrangements seem to be becoming more refined, not simplistic, but you seem to be dropping things here and there. How are your thought processes when composing?
JS. Well, simple is best, almost, almost. You like to be profound you know, and filling up the page with a lot of notes, maybe I'll get back in that or something, but it's not where I'm at right now.
MF It's not like you need to play more anyway, you seem to be saying more by playing less.
JS I think one can say more. You run the risk of having there be nothing there and then it's like minimal and then it's like so what? I mean "So What" the song by Miles is like the greatest minimal statement in the world, you know, what a song.
MF And everybody knows it!
JS (Laughs) Yeh, and it's hip. So to make something that's hopefully profound and simple. I like songs and melodies, yeh I'd like to get to that. Thanks a lot!
MF Who do you listen to at the moment? Who's on your Walkman right now?
JS It's weird 'cos I'm going back to some other stuff that has a lot of notes! (laughs) I've been listening to Cannonball Adderley from 1962, because Nat Adderley just died and I heard this stuff on the radio. When he died in New York they had this one station that played all his stuff. And I heard this fantastic music and I realized I used to go hear that band with Joe Zawinul when I was 18 and I loved it so I went. And I love Yusef Lateef a lot so I've been listening to him, and to jazz a lot lately again. Last year I was more in to sort of contemporary stuff.
MF What like classical contemporary?
JS No, as in trip hop. Sometimes I don't listen to that much stuff, period. But lately I've been getting in to some jazz. Yin and Yang you know.
MF Your new album has a very solid feel to it, despite using several different musicians for your rhythm section. How did you achieve this continuity of sound between the different players?
JS Well basically it's two rhythm sections and I used the guys from this band Deep Banana Blackout which is a funky unit that plays the old school funk and I used those guys for the funky tunes. And then Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr a little bit on the atmospheric stuff and they are on one kind of rock tune. Tony and Kenny are from the downtown scene in New York they play with a bunch of bands. Then I used Chris Wood in there and he can do anything. But basically it's like Eric Kalb for the funky stuff and Kenny Wollesen there was some groove type stuff and some rock stuff and a ballad type thing that I use him on. I felt like even thought the music's really different that James Brown used to have three drummers sometimes and I asked Claude Stubblefield, his drummer, what were you doing? He would point to who he wanted for a certain feel. One guy he liked the way he played a shuffle another guy he liked the way he played a funk beat. I understand that completely where you get two drummers better than one, if they are different, then you can really cover this rhythmic spectrum. Plus we have percussion! They seem to arrange themselves the way the drums and percussion works together as well.
MF How did your experiences with Miles Davis affect you and how has it influenced what you are doing now?
JS That's probably why I'm doing "Bump" right now. Because even though I always loved rock and whatever they call that electric music and funk I was headed towards just playing straight ahead jazz before I played with Miles. And Miles made me realize that it was OK to like the "other" stuff too and that there was other possibility with that music combined with jazz using rock and funk combined with jazz. And that is this open thing it's still open, there's still possibilities it's not as developed as bebop has developed so there's still more possibilities in that area. I just like those rhythms like the Meters played there was something about them. The way those guys swung the funk! I love it!
MF I'm a bassist and I have to ask you about Jaco Pastorius. Not that you had that much contact with him.
JS Yeh some though, and he actually was a big thing for me.
MF How did you first meet him?
JS You know this was amazing, I was up in Boston living up there and Pat Metheny came up there and we became friends. And Pat Metheny told me he said, you know there's this guy from Florida who I think he is like the greatest musician I ever met! Pat was like really amazed by this guy. He said, "problem is, he's really out there! (laughs) he'll like tell you he's the greatest musician you ever met!" Because all the other really great musicians we had met were really humble and were these kind of guru type guys and Jaco was different. Then Pat recently afterwards got him to play on his record, then I heard the record, I said "you're right he is really, really good. And then Jaco's record came out, and that blew my mind! Because I said here is somebody who has done what I wanted to do. I mean this guy on one track he was playing with Herbie and playing just unbelievable. He was playing the bass the way I wished I could play the guitar. Then he had Sam and Dave on another track and I said "Holy shit" because I had been a big soul music fan too at that time. Then he played Donna Lee and it was just like it was all there. And this guy was literally coming out of the blue and he changed music at that time. And then I met the man because then I got the gig with Billy Cobham's band and he joined Weather Report and we started to do all these gigs opposite each other. Then I got to know him a little bit and yeh it was true here was this guy who came up and said you know "I am the greatest bass player in the world. I know you been playing with some of those other guys but man, I'm the man!" I was like "who is this guy?" And then it really intimidated me because he was the man. He was completely the man! And he was this insane guy! (laughs) He just played it all man, he and it all and he burned up and he's gone.
MF He was one of the brightest musical flashes there has ever been.
JS Yeh, that I ever saw, like that (snaps his fingers) and it was over. He got into getting high. When I first met him he didn't get high on anything. He was like "I don't do that stuff that's for ass holes!" Then I met him, like a year later and he was like "hey man, I've got me some incredible cocaine, check this out!" Just completely gone, he was completely out of it. But you know the years that he was with Weather Report and when his album came out, there was nothing like it. It was just completely unbelievable, and his compositions the whole deal, he was the greatest ever, you know?
MF There are guys now who are technically better but they are not the same.
JS But there's nobody like Jaco. There was so much soul in that stuff and it was all the beautiful harmonics stuff too. It was Latin music, it was funk he played with Wayne Cochran and the CC Ryders which I was real into them because he was like the white James Brown, but it was from this really slimy, southern thing it was so funky and then Jaco was in on that! Because he lived in Florida which was the south and the real R&B stuff was down there in the deep south. And there was still the Criterian Studios down there where they made a lot of really heavy R&B stuff so his R&B stuff was just incredible. And all the chords that everybody heard like Joe Zawinul and Herbie and those guys I think they couldn't believe it. I was lucky to be there.
MF Did you ever do any gigs with him?
JS Well when he was really getting trashed we would play together loosely at this club called 55 Grand Street where he was involved in killing himself with drugs and alcohol nightly and I was helping him you know do myself in. And we would play loosely at this thing and I got to play on that video with but I was never in his band.
MF What are your plans for the next year?
JS I just made another record, a straight-ahead jazz record. (Laughs) With Billy Higgins, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Kenny Garrett, playing you know kinda, jazz. That will be out next year, my project right now is getting this quartet I've got together to play the music of "Bump". I've got Ben Perowsky on drums, Jesse Murphy on bass he's in a band called the "Bloomdaddies" Shamus Blake and Chris Cheek on saxophone in New York. Jesse's great he sort of reminds me of Chris Wood in that he plays electric bass and he can this really rock stuff happening, and funk and he's a really, really good acoustic bass player sort of reminds me of Gary Peacock he really plays jazz. Just beautiful and everything and plays killing electric bass, really rocks out! So I'm lucky to have him and Avi Bortnick who Charlie Hunter told me is the greatest rhythm guitarist in the world! I said really and he said, yeh he's working at this day job in Oakland, California so I called him up.
MF You really must have made his day!
JS Yeh I guess, I'm lucky to have him and he is funky. So he's going to come and play second guitar but you know he plays so funky when we all stop playing and he plays by himself - it's just great! (Laughs)
Text © Mike Flynn