John Scofield - Working Guitar Magic
As jazz icons go, John Scofield defies expectations as much as he meets them. His evergreen abilities as a guitar hero are fuelled by an undying fascination for music of all varieties and his obvious joy at simply being able to plug in his guitar and play the music he loves at the highest level. We first met last year on his promotional trip for his dirt funk, lo-fi electro groove fest 'Bump' which pushed his palette into, what some might call, a trip-hop area that featured a DJ and samplers for the first time ever on a Scofield album. The ambient colours he imbued with long, twisting stretches of melodic feedback and his chopped melodies refined his memorable writing skills in to the very 'essence' of his instantly recognisable guitar style.
Having progressed to this stage from his previous collaboration with jam band extraordinaire Medeski, Martin and Wood on 'A Go Go', which in turn contrasted with his previous big band acoustic album 'Quiet', it seemed inevitable that another change was on the cards. Some perhaps exaggerate Scofield's eclecticism, as he rightly points out, he only really specialises in two styles - funk and straight ahead jazz, but it's the ease with which he slips between the high brow and the hip shaking that throws some fans. Critically he knows this game better than most, so returning to his jazz roots for 'Works For Me' was never intended to please anyone but himself, least of all the critics, as he explained, "Yeah, you know I wasn't really thinking about saying to the critics, because, they're gonna get ya no matter what! [Laughs] They might not like the way I play straight ahead. But you know, it's part of me and it's something I've always done, I started out as a jazz fan, loving the idiom, I just love the feeling and the songs and I felt like I wanted to do it. I wasn't thinking about anyone else but me - because it 'Works For Me'!"
Perhaps the biggest reason for such a seasoned artist to produce such a mature work now - after the often-humorous couplet of funk albums - was the opportunity to work with some of his favourite players. A luxury the likes of Scofield doubtless get to indulge in at private gigs and jam sessions, especially when your neighbours are world-class musicians like Michael Brecker and John Patitucci. This album, however, represents a timely combination of coincidences and his long held ambition to work with drum legend Billy Higgins. Piano flavour of the month, Brad Mehldau was also someone Scofield had earmarked for a potential collaboration but it was to be saxophone godfather Charles Lloyd who would record a similar quintet album, 'The Water Is Wide' just a week before, with both Brad and Billy. He elaborate, "When Brad came in the studio he had just come from that record! [Laughs] That he had just made with Billy Higgins! 'Cos I thought, 'I don't think Brad's played with Billy Higgins', you know when he came to do my record, and they're like talking like old buddies. And they said 'yeah we just made a record together last week - with (John) Abercrombie and Charles Lloyd', so I got aced by a week by those guys! But we made them at the same time."
Aced he may have been, but the dynamics of that sensitive record were present on his own session. It was Mehldau's delicate dynamism that Scofield felt sure would avoid the occasionally fatal clash of the polyrythms of piano and guitar. "Yeah, you know it can work. It's one of the reasons I asked Brad to do this, as the record is, like you said, is a quintet, it's a classic, traditional jazz thing. Piano bass and drums in the rhythm section and instead of two horns its got saxophone and guitar and I kind of take the horn role with my electric guitar. And electric guitar and piano can really cloud each other and get in each others way so that's why I picked Brad because he's such a sensitive musician, to the colours in the music around him, that he always played out of my register and I tried to do the same with him. And he would use space and sometimes not play and let my chords come in - and I did the same with him and that's just because of his incredible musicianship."
Mehldau may be enjoying almost universal acclaim as one of the hottest young talents since Bill Evans, a comparison he's said to hate, but it's Higgins that Scofield was extremely eager to work with. "I knew I wanted to make the record with Billy Higgins because - I'll tell you this is the story, I was called in as a last minuet substitute two and a half years ago to play with Charles Lloyd, 'cos John Abercrombie hurt his back! And so I played with that group - not with Brad but with Marc Johnson on bass, Billy Higgins and Charles Lloyd. And Billy was on fire, it was just a great gig, I just loved playing with Charles and everything, and I said I've just got to do a record with Billy Higgins." The feeling on 'Works' is similar in style and quality to some of his early '90s work, particularly 'Meant To Be' and 'Time On My Hands' - two of his finest albums. The consistency of his creative process thrives on cultivating seeds of thought planted during this period, "It's coming right out of that same sort of thing. It's funny because Bill Stewart - the drummer on 'Meant To Be' and a bunch of records I did, who is one of the great drummers now - of the young generation, may be the greatest. I had been a Billy Higgins fan before, but when I started playing with Bill Stewart he really hipped me to Billy Higgins and in his own playing too things that were coming out of Billy Higgins. And when we listened to records together to records with Billy was on. So then I got Billy to actually play with me on this record you know."
The combined forces of such well-rounded players - not forgetting the sublime bass playing of Christian McBride, who also toured with Higgins as part of a Joshua Redman's band, inspired no shortage of high voltage exchanges. Scofield, Garrett and the normally dreamy Mehldau all fire flurries of notes as Sco explains, "Well it's because it's this kind of straight ahead jazz and that's what it's about, you know it's really about blowing. When I'm doing the funk, electric thing I think that it can really be a drag when get guys come in and play real virtuosic over a groove. A lot of the groove stuff you wanna just put little colours in here and there. But jazz, straight ahead jazz, is different - you make your statement."
The cyclical nature of Scofield's career is a semi-organic, semi-conscious progression that really only reflects the tip of the creative iceberg in terms of his output and involvement in music. "I think this might be little breather record because I think my next record's gonna be, maybe I don't know, I could either do another straight ahead jazz record, all out standards or something but probably what I'm gonna do is more of a techno thing than ever. And the would be with this band that's been playing the music from 'Bump' and a bunch of samplers and stuff - so then that would be out of sequence, right? This is just something I really wanted to do and if look at somebody's albums, that's one progression, but if everything I liked to do I recorded I'd be making a record every month! And I wish I could do that - [Leaning over to talk to press officer] Verve people would that be OK, could I come here and do publicity once a month trying to get people to write about it? I don't think so! You know, I've had a lot of stuff that I've had on hold over here and over and over there - in different projects and it doesn't all come out on record. So I've always played straight ahead jazz, on other guy's records, gigs around New York, just jam sessions with my friends. It's just the nature of the music you just get an upright bass and drums and you just say 'Stellar By Starlight' one, two, three, four and then you're playing and that's the beautiful thing of this traditional music that the jazz musicians all the songs, we can all play together. I can play with 5000 different groups of musicians in any country, and call a tune and you start playing it's wonderful." When he does return - expect the unexpected for sure - but also expect the music to be some of the most exuberant and expressive you will ever hear.
Text © Mike Flynn