John Scofield: ‘There was all this great music in the 60s when I became a music fanatic and all that stuff led me to jazz’

Jazz guitarist John Scofield. Picture: Nick Suttle
Jazz guitarist John Scofield. Picture: Nick Suttle
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American jazz guitarist John Scofield has played with all the greats, now he’s on a solo tour. He spoke to Duncan Seaman.

For a guitarist who has spent a lifetime performing with some of the biggest names in jazz, from Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker to Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, John Scofield sounds strangely wary of the prospect of stepping out onstage alone.

“I’m scared s***less,” he says, contemplating the run of solo concerts he has booked in the UK and mainland Europe this month. “This is really almost the first time. I’ve done three solo gigs in my life but that’s been over 25 years or something. This time I’ve booked eight shows so I’m really trying to get some sort of concept together. As you can imagine, it’s completely different, it’s a new area for me.”

The 67-year-old, who was born in Ohio and now lives in New York, admits he’ll miss not having a band onstage as sparring partners. “I always was interested in the group thing in jazz. As a professional and getting to do it a lot, I really do see the magic in group performance. But I’m hoping to get something going on my own. It’s worked OK in the basement here in my house studio and I’m actually really excited about it because I’m checking out all kinds of harmonics stuff, I’m kind of a lead guitar player.

“I’ve got a Looper pedal and I’m trying to use that somewhat tastefully. I hope I don’t sound like the guys that are busking on the street that are immediately making entire bands with a Looper pedal, which you can do these days. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I’m trying to just play the guitar too.”

He’s spent long hours weighing up a setlist. “We’ll see when we get there because it almost changes every day, but I’ve been trying to work on some standards, some originals of my own, some jazz tunes, but also some country songs I’ve loved for years and then rock tunes that work out nice on my own.”

Jazz guitarist John Scofield.

Jazz guitarist John Scofield.

The starting point is always song-based. “That sets up all kind of weird improvisations you can get into at the drop of a hat in a way that you don’t have anybody else to answer to, so you don’t throw anybody a curve except the audience, and that’s the positive aspect of playing by yourself. I start with these songs and sometimes it can go somewhere else, especially with the effects that you can get on the electric guitar.”

Scofield’s career, which began in the mid-1970s, has embraced many styles of music; he sees them as all related. “It’s all coming from various types of 20th century popular music, which is coming from 19th century. It’s not that esoteric. I’ve never really studied Indian music or classical music. I started out as a rock kid when I was 11. That was a time when folk music and rhythm and blues were very popular and The Beatles came on the scene, so there was this whole rock revolution. And there was doo-wop. There was all this great music in the early 60s when I became a music fanatic, and all that stuff led me to jazz.

“The older guys would say, ‘But there’s jazz, it’s the best stuff’, so I had in the back of my head even as a kid that jazz was it, and my dad bought me a Django [Rheinhardt] record when I was little. It all feels similar to me. There’s obviously the blues and then there’s country, which I’ve come to through the folk music thing as a kid, but they’re all jazz-related and when I do them they’re jazzy, I guess, compared to a real blues or country or rock guy.”

Jazz would seem to perfect idiom for musical exploration, yet Scofield recognises: “All music’s kind of hybrids. I really do think jazz started out as a hybrid and developed into all these things. There used to be a lot of pushback against mixing rock with jazz for a lot of different reasons, but that’s old-fashioned to think that way. Some hybrid forms work and others just seem sort of forced, and I think the ones that work work and the ones that don’t maybe you shouldn’t bother with.”

I don’t think there is anybody in jazz quite like Miles Davis today, he was just this pinnacle of the era.

John Scofield

Last year Scofield celebrated his 66th birthday by forming a new quartet, Combo 66, with Bill Stewart, Vicente Archer and Gerald Clayton. The band’s multi-generational venture aspect appealed to him. What’s interesting for me is to get the younger guys’ take on stuff,” he says. “I talk to them about what they’re listening to besides the people my age and the classics, who they’re checking out on the scene nowadays. They have a different perspective and they know about stuff that’s happening in a way that I sort of let slide as an older person, so I learn a lot from them that way. At the same time, I hired these guys because we are like-minded musically and I love the way they play and I think they can all play the way that I want to play, my tunes and whatever, so we have a lot in common that way, it doesn’t matter how old you are.”

Scofield’s own induction into the world of jazz was remarkable. After leaving Berklee College of Music he recorded with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan and then joined the Billy Cobham-George Duke Band. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “I was just reading this book about Dexter Gordon, and he joined Lionel Hampton’s band, which was the number one band in the land, when he was 17, and Tony Williams when he first started to play with Miles Davis, he was 15, and there are one or two kids today, so in that way I felt like a late bloomer because when I played with Mulligan I was 23, and in jazz a lot of people get it together really early, the greats.

“For me it was sort of an uphill battle and it was overwhelming, and I was really lucky to get those gigs. It was a time when the guitar was getting popular in jazz, so there was actually work for good guitar players that maybe hadn’t been there a few years before. When I [recorded] with Gerry and Chet I had been playing gigs with Gerry for a few months, but he wanted to augment his normal quartet with vibes and guitar for a different sound. He had already done big band and all kinds of different instrumentations of small groups, and he wanted guitar because it was on everybody’s mind – the old jazz guys were like ‘What’s this guitar thing in rock ’n’ roll?’.

“And then with Cobham I really lucked out. I think I was playing OK, I was getting there but I can’t listen to any of that early stuff. I realise I got some of the best gigs available and I feel it was luck.”

Scofield played on three Miles Davis albums in the 1980s – Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest. “He was really a superstar,” the guitarist remembers. “He was exciting to be around. I don’t think there is anybody in jazz quite like that today, he was just this pinnacle of the era. He took this music that he had helped to form, and he acted and looked like a movie star, and he was a very important cultural figure in the world as an African-American, so there was so much of that going on.

“But his music was the main thing and I learned so much. It was all stuff that I kind of knew already but to hear it coming from Miles, my idol, and put in such a great framing of how to be a creative jazz musician, that was wonderful. He was mercurial and difficult too, but you put up with that, because it was such a good gig.”

Davis spoke fondly of Scofield in his autobiography, admiring the subtleties in his guitar playing and blues influence that he brought to the band. “I was lucky in his autobiography because a lot of the greats got a lot of s*** from him. I guess when he wrote it I was in the band and he said nice stuff about me,” Scofield says. “But you know what, he loved blues and he could tell that I could play some blues, that I was really into it.”

Although Scofield has made over 30 albums as a band leader, he remains a regular collaborator. He likes a cross-pollination of ideas, he says. “A lot of it is I just kept answering the phone and wanting things to happen, and the music world out there wants to see different combinations. Agents are always telling me ‘Get something new going’ all the time. You learn a lot from each project, and I learn a lot from those great players, not only the guys in my group but the guys I’ve been collaborating with recently, I love it. I think the days when the Count Basie Orchestra did 230 jobs a year, I don’t think it’s quite like that any more, it’s different.”

Latterly Scofield has spoken of how much he has come to value simplicity. He says: “I always talked the talk but I couldn’t walk the walk. I’m trying to practise all this fancy stuff, be-bop, and jazz has all this hot s*** playing going on, so I was working on that too. But I think Miles as a role model, and the other lyrical players of jazz, soloists, have helped me along the way and recently I feel like I’ve been able to play more simple, and it works if you can get to that.”

John Scofield plays at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on February 13. www.johnscofield.com