In conversation with john scofield

By Stuart Nicholson

                        John Scofield by Nick Suttle

On John Scofield's 2002 album Überjam, drummer Adam Deitch performs a short, 20-second rap that includes the line, "Sco rocked for Miles and he's one of the best." Deitch's choice of words is telling. Sco rocked for Miles. A child of the '60s, Scofield listened to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and B. B. King. He marvelled at their inventiveness as he did such traditional jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Wes Montgomery.

As a teenager, Scofield was a fan of Berry Gordy's Tamla/Motown label. He loved blues and R&B. He played with high school bands that played in those styles, even as he studied bebop. Scofield's appreciation for R&B later stood him in good stead: in the '70s, when he was afforded the chance to work with drummer Billy Cobham's jazz-rock band (a group that also included Randy and Michael Brecker); and in the '80s, with Miles Davis's funk-oriented group. Many think the Davis albums on which Scofield played—Decoy, among them—were the best of the trumpeter's final period.

After years of recording for the enja, Gramavision, and Blue Note labels, Scofield began recording for Verve in 1996. Since then, he has made almost a record a year. The albums are a musically diverse lot: Quiet featured his acoustic guitar; A Go Go found him playing rough-and-tumble jam band tunes with Medeski Martin & Wood; Bump explored second-line funk. Recent albums have featured straight-ahead all-star jams (Works for Me), the music of Ray Charles (That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles), and collaborations with the English classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (Blood on the Floor and Scorched). It's fair to say Scofield does not wallow in a comfort zone. He moves between musical genres with accomplished ease, giving each his personal slant. His latest album is no exception. Piety Street is an excursion into Gospel music, given a distinctive musical flavor by a group of (mostly) New Orleans musicians handpicked by Scofield. It's quite different from anything he's attempted previously. We began our conversation by talking about the inspiration behind this latest project.

It's not a huge leap from Ray Charles to Piety Street. Could you tell what thoughts were going through your mind when you conceived this project?

Well, I wanted to make a blues-type guitar record. That was my first thought. But there are so many blues bands—on every corner, in every bar, guys playing 12-bar blues. I thought, 'We need a little more than that.' I've wanted to go to New Orleans for years to make a record, with New Orleans musicians, so I thought, 'What are we going to play?' Having been a fan of Gospel music for years and years and collected songs, performances, and recordings, I thought it might be a good base for stuff we could do. So I went down there played with a bunch of musicians and found the guys I thought would do the best job. They were into it, and we made the record.

How did you hook up with these guys?

I've known a lot of the guys down there for years, because I've played there a lot and hung out there over the years. I knew [singer and pianist] Jon Cleary; I'm a fan of his, I knew him through my brother-in-law Mark Bingham, who also owns the studio where we recorded. He lives in New Orleans. I met Cleary eighteen years ago, and have been following his work ever since. Also [bassist] George Porter, Jr. I'm a fan of the Meters and all those New Orleans records he played on, so I knew his stuff. I played with him a little bit—seven, eight years ago— at a big jam session that was organized by a promoter down in New Orleans. John Boutté, the other singer, I'd heard of, but didn't know him. He was recommended to me by Mark Bingham.

It was funny, because I wanted to get the same guys on the record that are going to be on the tour, rather than have all-stars on the album and not being able to tour with them. So I got all-stars who could tour, but I couldn't find a drummer who would commit. Two guys I really loved were busy, so I got Ricky Fataar, who is from San Francisco—not from New Orleans—but he's a great drummer and can play that music. Then we got Shannon Powell to play tambourine. He's a drummer, but he also plays incredible tambourine. He ended up playing drums on one of the tracks.

The album has fourteen songs, a lot of material by today's standards. You must have given a lot of thought to choosing the material.

I'll tell you, it's not that it was easy, but it was a joy. It got me into researching the music a little more. I have a friend up here in New York, Paul Siegel, and he's a gospel expert. Over the years, he's been feeding me all this stuff, and he fed me even more. It would have been easy to have made a Volume 2.

Can we talk about some of the songs? 'It's a Big Army' works particularly well.

Well, that's my composition, but it's my composition in the sense I took some elements from existing gospel music and stuck it all together. The changes are roughly from 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' [which besides] being the most-played jazz standard of all time … is a Gospel tune. We use this chant in between the percussion breaks—[sings] 'I'm a soldier, in the army of love, I'm a soldier in the army'—which is a recurring thing you hear on different Gospel performances, an up-tempo Gospel shout that comes up in all kinds of different places. We borrowed that. And Shannon plays cool percussion, so it's got this kind of Mardi Gras thing, too. I thought that track—for my guitar playing and the whole thing—came out really well

There are two songs by Dorothy Love Coates. Can you tell us about those?

She was a great singer and she wrote beautiful tunes. She had a group called Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. We do two of her tunes and Jon Cleary sings them … Cleary kills me, his singing and his piano playing. I think he's the star of the record. John Boutté sang three of the leads, but all the rest of the lead vocals were Cleary's. The first one is 'That's Enough'—'I've got Jesus and that's enough.' You know, people may talk about you and put you down, but it doesn't matter. I just love Cleary's singing on that.

And there's a stirring version of 'The Old Ship of Zion.'

That's a song by Thomas Dorsey, one of the greatest Gospel songwriters, not Tommy Dorsey! Thomas A. Dorsey used to be a blues singer called Georgia Tom until he got religion and wrote songs like 'Oh, Precious Lord' and other big standards. One of them I love is 'The Old Ship of Zion,' but we completely changed it around. It has this cool ten-bar section that we use like a ten-bar blues form, and I just solo over and over again—like on a 12-bar blues, only it's ten bars long. It's an interesting form and I never heard anybody play it like that. Then John Boutté sang beautifully, and he comes in at the end, singing about 'The Old Ship of Zion'—'I got on board early one morning'—and it's just those words that kill me. In the song there's this whole big long thing we didn't use, about how this guy was standing on the ocean and saw this ship, and the captain beckoned to him and he got on board.

Well, the album is quite inspiring. What do they say about Gospel? Hearts raised in praise of the Lord.

Yes. For me, I'm not a Christian per se. I'm not anything, I guess—not a member of any church. I came at this as a music nerd who digs soul music and grew up with it, and learned that there was this other soul music from the church, and that it might even be better, you know? But I get a lot inspiration from these songs and from the spiritual message. I haven't been 'born again'—I've only been born once—but I'm not discounting anything. I certainly don't know what's going on, and these songs of faith have a lot of feeling, especially the performances. I love the music.

Since Quiet in 1996, you've come up with a new project each year, more or less. I guess that creates its own kind of pressure.

I like to think of the records like books or films, [having] a concept and all. But if it ever became such a pressure that I wasn't making the music I wanted to make—that I started doing music I had no business playing—then I would stop doing it, because that wouldn't be good. But it's been fun to do these concept albums, like the Ray Charles record, because I've made records that were my own music. Quiet was just one where I made a kind of quiet record with a nylon string guitar, but it was still all my tunes. Most of my records have been like that. I like to make [each one] a special niche. But after this I might make ten records with the same trio, which is bad business for the record company. But business is bad anyway!

Interesting you should mention making ten records with the same band, because one thing jazz is missing is regular bands that stick together and develop their music in different directions. What are your feelings about that, because you've had some fantastic bands in the past: the Blue Matter band, and the quartet with Joe Lovano, for example?

I'd like to do something with the Blue Matter band again … I still have this thing with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart; we keep doing gigs as a trio, on and off. I'll bet we do another record at some point. I think bands are essential. Record companies want special projects all the time and that leads to the death of the band, but you know, a lot of bands shouldn't record a lot, because they'll just make the same record [over and over]. It feels good to them, but it actually doesn't have that difference from other ones. It takes a special band to make a lot of records.

Can you go right back to the beginning? You started out in blues bands didn't you?

Well, yes. I started out as a blues fan and a guitar player. I'm talking about when I was a teenager, and we tried to play blues. The bands I had as a kid in the '60s were Top 40 bands, the kind that played high school dances. But Top 40 bands in the mid-1960s, there was a lot of great music! Not just the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Those bands were really good, but also Tamla/Motown; we tried to play that music, and that kind of led me to the blues—B. B. King and that whole area … The blues [was] having a kind of popularity thing in the '60s, not only with Clapton and Hendrix, but B. B. King and Albert King, too. So I started by trying to emulate those guys.

So when did you become interested in jazz?

I started with blues. I always had a problem with the blues purist's thing, which had already started then: these white kids from the suburbs who played only the music of oppressed people from thirty years before. That whole thing. I was a little suspect of that, and then you know what happened? This is really weird. I went to hear Jimi Hendrix play, and I gave up trying to be a blues guitar player, 'cos he nailed the blues. Even though the music was psychedelic rock and everything, that whole thing of bending strings and having the guitar emote like that, he nailed it so hard that night that actually I thought, 'Maybe I'll be a jazz guitar player, that might be easier, all I have to do is practice.' I could never be like this wild, incredible guy, you know? Those were the thoughts I had that night.

I always loved jazz to—actually, I didn't always love jazz. I didn't know about jazz. My father, when I was very young, had bought me a Django Reinhardt album, and that was my introduction to jazz guitar. Then I took lessons from a local guy in Connecticut, which is 40 miles from New York City, and I took guitar lessons from this guy who was a bebopper, a wannabe bebopper. He was in his thirties at the time, and he really helped me. So by the time I was seventeen or eighteen and heard Hendrix and thought 'I couldn't do that,' I was really starting to study jazz. I loved blues and that had been there, and by the time I was seventeen I got way into learning about jazz, and still am.

Yet only six years later you were in Carnegie Hall playing with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. That's quite a stride.

Well, I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I was in high school. I was practicing on my own, just with my guitar teacher and two other kids. [Jazz] wasn't around me that much. It was around in New York City, but that was a foreign world to me. So I went to Berklee when I was eighteen, and hung out up there in Boston until I met Mulligan, and that's where I really got my shit together.

So what are your feelings about jazz education?

I have very mixed feelings about jazz education. We all do. Like everybody, I came up seeing jazz as this very alive art form and it was a street thing. The artists were incredible musicians, with all this romance about how they were living. And even though I knew they were studying, they were intellectuals: they were wigs, beatniks, and stuff. You read Sartre and played like Charlie Parker, something like that. And so jazz education and the squareness of the university just don't sit right with me, ever.

But you've got to get it together somewhere, and what Berklee did for me was, coming from a small town, I met all these like-minded kids and really good musicians. That's where I met some of the guys who were teaching there at the time, [who] really showed me how to play. Gary Burton and Steve Swallow, I met both of them, and then some other names that are not so famous who were locals in Boston. Boston has always had this music education scene and a pretty good jazz scene back in the '60s. Herb Pomeroy and his bunch were really great players, bebop generation guys. I got to play with them, and Alan Dawson, he was incredible. So because of Berklee, I was able to get around great musicians. That's what it can do for you.

Now, we've got situations with big universities that have jazz programs, with guys teaching at them who don't really play gigs and don't play out there on the scene. Those guys can really play, too, but there are more guys who can play 'Giant Steps' than ever, and they're all in this university world, and it doesn't feel really creative to me.

Now, Billy Cobham, you toured and recorded with him quite a bit.

Yeah, I was with Billy in '75 and '76. I had played a little bit with Mulligan. He wanted me to be in his band, but he didn't have a whole lot of work, and I had met Cobham, but had no idea that Cobham was going to call me. He produced this demo by a drummer named Horacee Arnold. I was still living in Boston, but came down and played basically for free with Horacee Arnold, because he had gigs that paid 30 bucks a night with good young jazz guys from New York. Cobham had come in to help his friend Horacee Arnold produce this demo, and out of the blue Cobham calls up and says, 'You want the gig, you got it.' He hired me for his band. I replaced John Abercrombie, and it was with the Brecker Brothers, later with George Duke and Alphonso Johnson. It was a great experience. We toured worldwide non-stop for two years. That was at the height of the fusion era and we played big shows. It was great!

From the perspective of a young guitarist soaking up knowledge, experience and information, what did you get from Billy Cobham?

Well, in a way I'd been in the ivory tower up there in Boston, trying to play bebop. This got me out into the real world. We were playing rock shows; we were playing opposite the Average White Band or the Doobie Brothers. It was also opposite Weather Report, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, from the fusion scene. It was really playing for the people and part of this exciting music scene in the '70s, you know? It was really happening then. It was the Led Zeppelin years, not that I was in that scene, but I was on the perimeter of that scene and it was very exciting. And these guys were playing great music and were great instrumentalists. It got me into playing jazz-rock, which I really hadn't done. But because I had started out playing blues and rock and all of that, I was able to make a leap into it.

In the late '70s, I remember albums you did like Out Like a Light on the Enja label.

Well, I played in Billy's band and that broke up in '77. I was able to stay in New York until the end of the '70s. I started to have some of my own groups, and so I was playing little gigs around, and started to come to Europe at the end of the '70s. Enja records would help me get gigs, and sometimes we'd play just Germany for a month. It was great, because I had gigs as a leader every night and I never had that in the States. I would play once in a while on an off night in New York City, or go to Boston or Philly to play, if you hustled it up. So I was able get a group, and with Out Like a Light we had Steve Swallow, my old teacher and friend, and my mentor … I started playing with him a lot at the end of '70s.

The next major episode in your career was, of course, Miles Davis. Can you describe what led to that?.

Between Billy Cobham and when I went with Miles Davis, I was in New York and I was 'jazz guitarist for hire.' I did tons of stuff, and a lot of recordings, actually—a lot of gigs with a lot of different people, as well as my own gigs. Looking back, it was great. I got to play on two albums with Jay McShann on Atlantic; I got to make a record with Mingus on Atlantic. I did all kinds of sideman stuff—weird records that are now discontinued with various artists. I got to do some jazz studio work, and just playing gigs and just learning how to play. I was on the scene in New York and did all kinds of things.

And then in '82 Miles hired me. That came about because I knew the guys in his band. Mike Stern was the guitarist in Miles original comeback band. Mike and I were really good friends, we played gigs all the time together. There's a club in New York called 55 Grand Street. Mike and I played there quite often with bass and drums, in quartet, a loose, jamming guitar band. Miles loved Mike, but Mike was so strung-out at the time that Miles didn't know what to do, so he said, 'Okay, I'm going to have another guitar player here,' I guess to get Mike to get it together. Miles always did this; he would hire two sax players, whatever. He loved to have a competition.

So he hired me, and the first year I was with Miles, it was with Mike and myself. [But] Mike couldn't get out from underneath the drug jones. It was rough, and he'll tell you the same thing. And Miles let him go. He loved Mike, but Mike was fucking-up, so Miles kept me and let Mike go. And then Mike cleaned-up, thank God, and has been in great shape for thirty years or whatever it's been since then. But at the time, that's how I got to be the only guitar player in Miles's band.

That must have been a different ball game with Miles, jazz's only bona fide superstar.

Oh, the only one of his kind. So this was such a thrill to be around him, because he was my favorite. I had always gone to see him—had every record, knew his work. I think I had in the back of my head, if I could play like anyone, I would like to play like Miles on guitar. I copied his solos. The experience was a whole other thing. Outside of the music, the guy was more like Marlon Brando or Pablo Picasso. As far as cultural cachet was concerned, this guy would walk in a room and it was all over, you know? And we would tour around, and there was a scene just being around him. It was major, it would probably be like being in Obama's entourage—I don't know. That was exciting, that was very much of a trip … the music was really paramount and important to him. He loved talking about music, talking about it all the time.

And then you went with the Gramavision label.

Yes, during the time I was with Miles people knew who I was a little more, and the Gramavision record label wanted me to record for them, so I did. The first record I made for them was called Electric Outlet. When I made the second one, Still Warm, I was still with Miles, too—making these records and getting these gigs between his tours. I left his band because I had done it for two-and-a-half years and I thought I had really experienced it. I didn't want what happened to Mike to happen to me—different circumstances, but I was thinking, 'Well, maybe Miles is getting a little tired of me, I'm not sure, so I'll just jump ship,' because I could get my own gigs and I wanted my own band. We made Blue Matter, and I put that band together right after I had left Miles. We were able to work all the time for a couple of years.

That band made quite an impression on people.

Yes, you know what it was the right timing, because I had gotten a lot of exposure with Miles. Because of playing with Miles I wanted to use these '80s funk musicians who were so great. I met Gary Grainger first, the bassist. He was raised in Baltimore and had grown up with this drummer Dennis Chambers. He said, 'I got this drummer, you better check him out.' And I had heard of Dennis with P-Funk. I had heard a bootleg tape and I thought he was incredible, and we started to play together, and it worked!

The quartet with Joe Lovano and Bill Stewart, that was quite different, wasn't it?

Yeah, I had been in this Miles world of funky rhythm sections—kinda like '80s funk, not the funk I started out with, but a new version. By the end of the '80s, I felt frustrated sonically and wanted to lay with jazz musicians—more straight ahead guys with an acoustic sound. I loved Lovano, was a fan of his since Berklee, and had played with him some … so I called him, and asked if he could make my gigs, and he did. The first record we did wasn't with Bill [Stewart]. It was with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden,. It was called Time on my Hands, and that was a studio project. And that's when we started to work on our sound, me and Joe, our front-line sound. We put together the band with Bill Stewart after that.

And then came albums like Meant to Be and an interesting album with Bill Frisell.

Oh yeah, I did that. We had played together on Marc Johnson's Bass Desires on ECM. I did the two records on ECM with Marc and Bill [Frisell], and I love Bill's playing and invited him to do a record with me. He's so much fun to play with, [he has] a visionary thing on guitar, I think.

You then signed with Verve.

I had been with Blue Note, and Verve stole me from Blue Note, offering me a great deal. At that time Verve had a really strong European department; they were really able to help me in Europe. Europe has always been very important to me touring-wise, and it was where I got my start—like I said, playing in Germany for a month at a time with enja. I thought Verve was good that way, so I went with them.

A series of interesting albums followed. One of my favorites is A Go Go with Medeski Martin & Wood.

I just love these guys. I had been into '80s digital fusion, and then these guys came out, in the '90s, and they were bringing back some of the older funk stuff: upright bass, B3, clavinet. I just loved the way these guys played. They played this rootsy, old-school R&B kind of groove, and they went free. They're from the Downtown scene in New York, completely abstract, and I could, too. I thought, 'These are guys that I can play with,' and I called them up. They were quite established as a band in 1997 when I got in touch with them. We got together and played, and we made A Go Go. It's ten years since then, and we made another record a year ago. It's really great playing with them. They're so incredibly human, and it's great I can fit in with it. They don't have a guitar player!

In contrast is the album with the classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.

I did two records with him. The first one is called Blood on the Floor. I did that, which is Mark's piece; he incorporated me improvising in that incredible piece of music. After that we did a record called Scorch, which were my tunes that Mark arranged for orchestra. I played along with Peter Erskine and John Patitucci. That's cool, too. Mark is a giant. It's so rare you meet a classical composer who so loves what you do and wants to incorporate those sounds. He loves jazz and he especially loves Miles electro stuff. It's great the way he works it in with orchestra. We've become really good friends. I've learned such a lot from him, because it's such a different world. He's there in Stravinsky-land and really knows that music. I've never met anybody like him

He told me he studied under Gunther Schuller.

Oh yes, he's the real deal.

Jazz doesn't operate in a vacuum. We've got the credit crunch and a recession. How do you see things shaping up in jazz as a result?

Well, yes, there is this world financial collapse which hasn't really hit us too badly in jazz. We'll see it, though. I've got a bunch of gigs, a bunch of festival gigs. The fees are down, but the festivals are still there!

You were talking about how you were 'on the scene' in New York in the late '70s and early '80s. How do you read the scene today?

I don't feel I am on the scene the way I used to be. I was living in town, and knew everything that was going on. Now, I play my own gigs and concerts and don't even read Down Beat! But I meet really good musicians. I meet people that love the music. The whole jazz scene has always been underground, in a way.

There is a rise in the number of door gigs, which makes it hard for young musicians in particular to support themselves in jazz.

Yes, these gigs have never made a lot of money for anyone, unfortunately. When I meet young players and they tell me they're doing an $80 gig or something, I think that's what they used to pay in the '70s. Nothing has changed. The answer is to make great music, and then people will hear about it.

Well, on that positive note we'll end. Thank you for talking to

Thank you.

Dates for John Scofield's Piety Street tour can be found on


March 29, 2009 · 1 comment

  • 1 lbs // Mar 30, 2009 at 04:44 PM
    As John Scofield mentioned, The Meters and George Porter Jr. have been influential in the funk and jazz scene of New Orleans. If you like this sound, you should check out George Porter Jr.s rendition of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" on the New Orleans compilation, FUNKY KIDZ.