Interview by Simon Hotz | Photos by Jason Tanaka Blaney
Catching a breather after the first leg of the Überjam tour, jazz/rock/groove-guitarist John Scofield talks to JamBase about the new album, his recent collaborations, and his younger (and larger) audience. Among other things, John discusses his introduction to popular music and, consequently, that 6-stringed instrument known as the guitar. Scofield spoke over the telephone to JamBase correspondent Simon Hotz from his home in Katonah, NY.
Simon: So, you’ve been out on the road a little bit, right?
John: Yeah, well we did a week in Japan, and then a little Midwestern run last week – we got back a couple of days ago.
Simon: How did those shows go?
John: Really well. It was fun playing in Milwaukee, Madison, and Stephen’s Point – where I’d never been before – and Minneapolis. It went great.
So, how do you feel about finally recording an album – Überjam – with the band that you’ve been touring with for awhile?
That’s great. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do. Record companies, of course, want to have all-star records nowadays, because they’re easier to promote --although I do like that, and sometimes it has really worked well for me, like on A-Go-Go with MMW, which was great. But there’s something about a band that plays every night that... there’s nothing like it. And we were able to work on the music and let it evolve in a way that never happens when you’re doing special projects.
Which leads into another question... Can you talk a bit about the composition and recording process of the songs on this album? Did they have their genesis on the road, or did you sit down and write the composed music out for the other musicians (with solos improvised from the written parts)?
Well, it’s been this system in jazz where you write a tune and kind of figure out what everybody would play, and then you tell them – it’s like one step closer to classical music than just jamming it out. Although all the parts aren’t written out, you kind of conceptualize it in your head – sometimes even make demo tapes, sometimes write out the bass line – but have the changes and the form worked out before hand.
That’s not the way we did it on this record. This record was much more of a loose thing where we’d get together and jam. Somebody would have an idea... a lot of times the impetus for the jam would be a sample, or sometimes a bass riff, or sometimes I’d have a thing. But it usually started with a sample of a rhythm thing, or a drummer would have a beat and the drums and bass would come up with a thing, and then we’d start jamming on the thing. Sometimes we’d make a tape of the soundcheck. If it sounded good we’d say “OK, we’ve got to remember this.” Then somebody would say “I’ve got a different part to go to when we go into this second part,” or I would bring in a melody to go over it. A lot of times I would take it and kind of change it around a little bit, or bring in other parts – sort of arrange it myself after the original thing. Usually, actually, the original thing was in mind. It was either a sample or a drum and bass type thing.
And so we wrote it together. All the way through, everybody in the band had little arrangement ideas... you know “Do this here” or whatever. So, more than half of the tunes are co-written like that. Then, a couple of them are just the old way, where I just brought in the tune.
What did playing with a second guitarist [Avi Bortnick] add to this album that you haven’t experienced before?
Well, one thing is that we play really differently – in a really good way. He plays that super funky, really smoking rhythm guitar shit. And I do rhythm guitar in a different way. I always wanted to be able to also do it the way Avi does it. Also, he’s got a Strat, I have a semi-acoustic guitar, so together we make one big “guitarchestra,” because we both play differently.
I think guitars really complement each other. The problem is when if gets into that “battle-of-the-guitars” jam – who can be faster or louder – and it really gets boring - pyrotechnical and boring. And Avi doesn’t really even want to take long solos – single line, linear solos like I do. So it’s great. We really offset each other. When he takes a solo he does a kind of rhythm break and does this incredible rhythm guitar – when it comes up to the front it’s like a break. So it’s really just a different thing. I think we also work really well together. He’s really into some wild effects and he’s into this whole sampling thing. So we’re a really good combination.
Avi popped up when you were on tour supporting the Bump album, right?
Yeah, we first hooked up... I made Bump, but I played the rhythm guitar parts on that, so I said “Well, now I’ve got to find a rhythm-guitar player to play this music live.” And then I met Avi. Actually, Charlie Hunter told me about him.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the other band members? Especially for us non-East Coasters, who are unfamiliar with where they came from.
Oh yeah... Lettuce. Well, the drummer, Adam [Deitch], I met him with this group Lettuce, but he was also playing drums with the Average White Band. I mean, he’s this funk-phenomenon at a young age, and he’s just great. He’s a recent addition to the band.
Can you talk about the two guests on the album? If you’d like, talk about your ongoing relationship with John Medeski and your recent dealings with Karl Denson.
Karl is fantastic. This is the first time we’ve played together. The first time that I heard him was at a festival with his Tiny Universe band. And then someone told me that he’d been in the Greyboy Allstars, and I remember hearing them and thought that they were a real funky unit. I actually really like them a lot. So, we met and then jammed with each other a couple of times – actually at a few other festivals – and we really hit it off.
I dig his sound a lot, and I wanted to have some horn in there. I knew he played flute, and I knew he played tenor saxophone with this electronic attachment that reminds me a lot of Eddie Harris, and that Varitone sound – which is an electric sax from the sixties that I really love which has a really wild, funky sound. So Karl’s just a great guy and a great player, and it was great to get him on the date. He’s got a lot of soul, and I loved it.
And Medeski has been really important to me over the last few years. I think he’s a visionary musician. He’s just so ballsy. He’s definitely versatile. His orchestra of sound are incredible. What he did on the record with the mellotron, as well as clavinet and organ... He thinks so orchestrally. He’s like a walking orchestra – a weird orchestra. And then, he plays so free. You never know where he’s going to go. And he’s so funky, too. His rhythm is so happening.
When I first heard that group (MMW), I thought, “Well, here’s the future of jazz-rock.” It was a style of playing that I’d been around, but it’s just something about that trio. When they do it and they’ve got such conviction…It is really unique, and I love his playing.
Let’s talk a bit about your influences... What I’d really like you to think about and tell us about are your rock influences (more than your jazz influences). I think that this album is more rocking than what you’ve put out in the past, and thought you might talk the rock guitarists who influenced you.
I started listening to the radio when I was a young kid. I got my first guitar right when the Beatles made their debut on American television. So, I was a Beatles fan, and the whole pop scene changed and became very guitar-oriented then. But I also liked doo-wop and the fifties music a lot. I immediately went back and checked out records that had the original “Twist and Shout” and the original “Money” and the original versions of songs by people like the Isley Brothers and Chuck Berry. So I really fell in love with R&B via the English Invasion. In the sixties I was just deep into it.
And then blues, on guitar, took me over. B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters... And then other artists like Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf, even though they didn’t play guitar. This kind of music flipped me out.
I also liked, a lot, because they played similarly, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix. Those boys played their asses off.
So that’s my rock background. It’s really from the sixties. Then, by the seventies I got into jazz, and didn’t really absorb rock in the same way. But I was lucky that I was there in that key time. If you were to study rock guitar now, you’d probably just go back and do Hendrix and that’d be your main thing.
One of my favorite bootleg recordings is a copy of your performance at the Summit Festival last summer, where you played jazzed out versions of several rock tunes. Can you talk about that experience a little bit?
I loved the band that we had at the Summit Festival. [Read Review] It was a one-off thing, but I hope we get to do it again. Larry Goldings on organ is one of the greats. And Billy Martin... man, he just plays. I feel like him like I do about Medeski. But I have a real hook-up with Billy Martin, because there’s something about the way that he puts a beat – it really lets the music fly. It has a certain perkiness, and when you play with it just goes places. I love it. I’d really love to play with those guys again, and it’s in the back of my head.
Photo by Ian Stone
So, yeah, we played stuff like “Satisfaction” and “Hey Joe.” “Hey Joe” has the greatest chord changes. [Scofield hums the chord changes.] Just going through those changes gives you a lot to improvise on. So it was fun. I’ve heard a lot of people take old rock tunes and try and do them, but it can really be fucked up. It can be like muzak. You go into the A&P and that’s what you hear -- instrumental versions of rock tunes from the sixties, and it’s terrible. So, I think there’s a way to do it, and, just like any music there’s good versions and there’s bad versions, and we just hope we pick the good ones.
What do you think of the tape-trading phenomena? Is it something that you encourage?
Well, I don’t mind it if people tape the gigs and trade them. I just don’t like it when people sell stuff and the artist doesn’t get paid. I think the whole thing of sharing music is great. I always did it – I would go to a club and make a tape of my favorite jazz guy, and my friends and I would share them. So it isn’t new to me.
I’m not so sure how I feel about downloading records. I think that’s different. I think trading live tapes is really cool, and really good for the music. And also, it’s great to hear live versions of things. If you’re really into the music, you want to hear it on one day, and then hear it another day and have it be different. With our band, and most guys like us, it’s really different from night-to-night. So, if you’re a real fan, it’s fun to hear ten different versions.
Me and some guys that I know around the world have been trading off tapes of Miles Davis from the sixties. Like, maybe “Do you have Stockholm from ’65?” “Oh yeah, I have that.” It’s the exact same thing.
Maybe you would like to talk about the younger audience you’ve been drawing to your concerts in recent years. Is this something that you like?
Well, I always wanted to have a bigger audience, and now I do because of this younger thing. I can’t think of anything to dislike... it is only like. These people are into my music, you know. I didn’t have to change my music. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’ve changed your music. You’re playing jamband music now.” To tell you the truth, I mean, when I do straight-ahead jazz, that’s one thing, but jazz-rock, or my kind of fusion – funky jazz – is something I’ve been doing for twenty years. It’s been changing and evolving.
When I found out that Medeski, Martin & Wood actually had a following, it flipped me out. Because, I knew about these guys. Then someone told me that when they played they had all these young, college kids coming out. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I didn’t know that was happening. Then about five years ago I found out about this audience, and it’s been the greatest thing that’s happened in my career. Period.
Let it be known that we’re glad you’re here. The jam scene appreciates a vacation from the garbage that is most popular music.
That’s the great thing about the jam scene – it’s an alternative music. This stuff is an alternative to MTV. I can relate to that – I’ve always been looking for an alternative. That’s why I got into jazz thirty years ago.
Let me ask you another question – a more personal one, but one that is important especially given your younger audience. In the liner notes of Überjam, it reads, “John Scofield wants his audience to know that (despite evocative tune titles) he has not used drugs and alcohol since 11 July 1998.” [Scofield & MMW performed in Amsterdam this date.]
Well, actually, I think it was two days before that was the last time I got high. You know, it was just a long road for me of using sometimes and trying to not use, and drinking and all. It’s a very personal thing. I don’t tell anybody what to do, because this is just the world.
But when I had some titles of some of my tunes that referred to that I thought I should put on that that I don’t get high, and I haven’t been getting high. I just thought I’d put that out there. It’s no kind of value judgment. Yes, I was in Amsterdam... we all know about Amsterdam. But, it’s a long road for all of us, and it’s a personal thing. I had fun getting high at different points. It also became an obsession that almost, I believe, killed me. And I thank whoever’s up there for taking me out of this thing and putting in me in another path.
It’s nothing that I’m ashamed of. I can talk about it. I feel like I’m standing on the other side of the abyss. I don’t need it. I’m better off for it. But I don’t tell anybody else what I think they should do. When I put on there the date I sobered up, I did it because it was my experience. I can tell you about my experience, and that’s about all I can do.
It’s so funny that you’ve heard the recording from that Amsterdam show. You should really hear the tapes from July 8! [laughs]
Finally, if you’d like to comment about your wife’s contributions to your musical and emotional life. I’ve heard you thank her for her inspiration, song titles, etc. in your live appearances, and I was wondering if you’d just like to say any more about her for the millions of readers out there.
I’m really lucky. Susan is both my wife and my business partner. As we all know, this music thing is a business. So, she takes care of the business end of things – and I’m really lucky because she’s good at it. So we try to keep it in the family, and it is a homegrown network of doing it ourselves. It is hard for everybody when you’re away for so long, it’s wild. But she’s great, and I love her.
John Scofield Band Tour Dates
Interview by Simon Hotz
JamBase | Chicago
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