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A Conversation With John Scofield

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This week, music fans will get a double-dose of jazz guitarist John Scofield and his trio: On Thursday and Friday, the JST will stop by Regattabar in Cambridge, and on Saturday, they will perform as part of inspiRAYtion, a tribute concert to legend Ray Charles being held at Boston's Berklee Performance Center. I had a chance to sit down with John to discuss his career, his affection for the music of Ray Charles, and what keeps him inspired nearly 40 years into his illustrious career:

DG: Like so many folks who are on tap to be part of Inspired By Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium this week, you are a Berklee alumnus, yes?

SCO: That would've been in 1970 - incidentally, the first year of its name change from Berklee School of Music to Berklee College of Music. Seems so long ago, it feels like the Dark Ages. After graduating from high school in Connecticut, I started attending Berklee in the fall of 1970 - I was eighteen years old. I remember my first apartment was literally around the corner on Heminway Street.

DG: I know the area - I was looking at apartments on that block when I moved to Boston from New York back in 1994.

SCO: Yeah, it's a great area. Mostly college students of course, given its location, but you also had the old Back Bay residents who stayed behind. Me and a few musician buddies shared an apartment on the corner of Heminway and Haviland Streets. What's kinda amazing about that time was that we could have jam sessions there, and the neighboring tenants didn't seem to care or mind.

DG: Really? My guess would be that dynamic has probably changed today.....

SCO: You better believe it. I'm sure that part of Boston is considerably more "upscale" now than it was back then.

DG: I understand one of your earliest gigs was performing with the legendary duo of Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan-

SCO: That's an interesting story: I had attended Berklee for two years, when I decided (like so many other cats at the time) to drop out - I was being offered so many gigs to play around Boston, it just made sense to jump in and learn my craft on the job, rather than in the classroom. The late Alan Dawson (jazz drummer and instructor) indirectly played a role in getting me the gig with Chet. Gerry Mulligan came to the Jazz Workshop on Boylston Street, looking to augment his band with a guitarist and vibraphonist, and asked Alan if he knew of anybody. Alan got me and vibraphonist Dave Samuels on that gig. Later, Mulligan and Baker were set to do a reunion concert at, of all places, Carnegie Hall. Mulligan decided in addition to utilizing the CTI Records rhythm section (which included Ron Carter, Harvey Mason, and Bob James) for the concert, he'd use me and Dave (we'd only been performing together for about two weeks.) But that's how we aced the gig with Chet and Gerry.

DG: And what were your personal impressions of Chet? I mean, so much mythology exists even to this day about Chet regarding his addiction struggles and infamous outbursts with musicians and producers......

SCO: He was very nice to me. Chet was essentially your basic jazz beatnik type - very much into the music and interacting with other musicians. I had heard all the stories about drug use, but I can honestly say I don't recall seeing any instances of it. I didn't spend a lot of time with him compared to some other folks, but my time with him was extremely rewarding - he was a very interesting guy.

DG: For a 22 year old fledgling, as it were, it had to be pretty amazing to find yourself working with a living jazz legend like Chet.

SCO: Looking back, I still can't believe how I lucked into that - hooking up with Mulligan, a legend in his own right, and then gigging with the two of them. Very cool.

DG: And speaking of legends in their own right, just looking at your resume bro is sick. You have worked with such an incredible, eclectic array of musicians in your career, many of whom I respect and admire: from drummer Billy Cobham to guitarist Pat Metheny to keyboard player George Duke to bass icon Charles Mingus.......the list goes as long as my arm.

SCO: So much of that I have to say was me being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. During my days as a Berklee student, I was running into so many great jazz men, both young and old. Literally a month after playing Carnegie Hall, I was tapped by Billy Cobham to be part of his band - next thing I know, I'm moving from Boston to New York, and jamming with him. I was a good young player, in the right place at the right time, that time being the 70's - the infancy of the fusion movement. But some of the more old school jazz cats were still doing their thing as well, which offered some incredible opportunities. But had I been living in Framingham, rather than being part of the Boston jazz scene, that wouldn't have happened.

DG: I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that the 70's were a watershed moment in the history of jazz music, especially as it relates to the intersection of old and new idioms which occurred at that time.

SCO: Yeah, I wouldn't dispute that - certainly, that time was especially fruitful for me, and the names of the guys on the scene were legendary, but thirty years from now, the folks coming up in the jazz scene today will also be legends. Certainly as far as that decade goes, everything was happening in New York City, which is why so many jazz musicians flocked to New York - if you wanted to make the jazz scene and make a name for yourself, New York was the place to be. So I'd say the scene was more centrally located then, particularly between the East Coast and West Coast jazz cabals. Perhaps it's different now - jazz has taken on more of a global dynamic of late, I guess.

DG: You turned 60 recently. As a "jazz veteran", what keeps you inspired?

SCO: I'd like to attribute that to the creative urge which speaks to all mankind, and that is true to a certain extent, but really, I'm inspired by hearing the music of others. When I hear other people playing stuff, it makes me want to play - whether it's following their lead, as it were, or something else that causes me to find my own way of saying something musically. And of course, I do go back and listen to the work of the greats of my time. I find as much inspiration from the forerunners of jazz as I do the modern-day innovators of jazz.

DG: Sometimes, an artist can emerge as both forerunner and innovator - the name Jaco Pastorius comes to mind...

SCO: Yeah, I got a chance to work with him as well - not a whole lot, though. We were contemporaries. The connection between me and Jaco was Pat Metheny. I knew Pat from my Berklee days, though it happened after I'd already dropped out. I was still in touch with many of the faculty, however. Metheny was one of those - he had to be youngest guy to ever teach music at Berklee, and we became friends. I remember us hanging out one day, and Pat was telling me about this bass player who lived in Florida, whom he said was the greatest bass player in the world. Part of you wants to greet that statement with a healthy degree of skepticism, but I knew Pat wasn't the sort of person to make grandiose declarations: I said, "Really? The greatest bass player in the world? Are you sure?" and Pat said, "I know it sounds weird to say, but yeah - it's true." So Pat brought him up to Boston to play with him in 1974, the same year I was gigging with Mulligan. A year later, I got a chance to meet him, and I was totally blown away by his playing. We didn't play a lot together, but most folks know of our collaboration through Jaco's instructional music video, which has me playing alongside him and Kenwood Dennard. The video has taken on a life of its own on Youtube - I believe the tape was produced shortly before his death in 1987.

DG: I have a personal connection to Jaco myself - I saw him play at the Tribeca Five and Dime, back in the mid-80's, when I was living in New York City. I'm fond of sharing the story that Joni Mitchell was in the audience, and I screwed up the courage to ask if she'd introduce me to him, which she did. I was just starting out as an electronic musician, and was playing around at places like The Knitting Factory, and when I heard Jaco was gonna be at the TF&D, I just had to see him......

SCO: Did you say it was the mid-80's? Oh boy.......

DG: Yeah, it was during the turbulent time of his final years on this Earth. I had recently purchased Jaco's solo disc (the one with the iconic black and white portrait cover,) and was really psyched about hearing him live. I know the talk on the street was that Jaco was kinda messed-up, what with the drugs and all, and his disposition could be volatile, to say the least. Much to my surprise, it was Jaco who initiated the friendship with me - he was really interested in what I was doing as an electronic artist, the techniques I was employing and the stuff that was inspiring me. To this day, I cite Jaco as a mentor, for he was so encouraging of my talent: as a self-taught musician, I had a whole lotta insecurities about what I was attempting to do as a composer, but Jaco was in my corner every step of the way - I don't know if I would've stuck it out and not given up, had it not been for him.

SCO: Wow - so that was your experience of Jaco, even during that time in his life? That is so cool, man. You were blessed to have known him. The man was an avatar, you know? He showed up, and was around for what seems like a minute, a flash. I remember that album with the head shot cover, too. That record came out before his stint with (jazz fusion ensemble) Weather Report. I heard it shortly after its release, and it was like - everything I ever tried to do as a jazz musician, this guy could do, and really well. He moved effortlessly from jazz to funk, even classical. And then I realized this cat was the same age as me, and was even more impressed. The later years, and his downfall - to me, was just incredibly sad. Hearing about it from afar through witnesses, while I was back in the city, was just.........goddamn. Nobody has ever played those idioms on bass like him, and no one ever will.

DG: I've had this ongoing debate with jazz artists and music critics for years: to me, the new generation of jazz musicians are all savants, so far as technical virtuosity goes, but creatively, something seems missing. To quote Keith Jarrett (from the liner notes to his album, Spirits): "Musicians can and do fool themselves every day when they say they are "making music." They mean they are playing their instrument very well. What's lacking is value, meaning..."

SCO: It's kinda like being in the NBA these days - the level has gotten so high in terms of virtuosity, but then, where do you go from there? If someone who's a genius happens to be a virtuoso, they've developed that virtuosity, and imbued it with soul, an appreciation for beauty and a sense of individual style or taste. But to be simply virtuosic, it demands you spend all your time working on the perfecting of technique, and if you do that, it's easy to lose sight of the value and meaning in the art of creation for its own sake.

DG: And a perfect example of both genius and virtuosity would be the legendary Ray Charles: I was not surprised to learn you'd be taking part in inspiRAYtion, the tribute concert to Ray's music at BPC this weekend, given your 2005 release, That's What I Say - an album of Ray Charles covers......

SCO: Who isn't a fan of Ray Charles? Actually, the idea was suggested to me by the folks at my record label. Generally, when a record label suggests album ideas for you, you smile politely, and then proceed to shoot it down, because it's never what you as an artist feel is right for you. In this instance, however, the idea really rang a bell for me: I'd been into Ray's music ever since I first heard him, and a large part of my musical education came from dissecting his work in R&B and jazz. It was a blast to have an opportunity to cover those tunes, and given Ray's ranging musical tastes, covering his work is like covering the history of American music, wouldn't you agree?

DG: No doubt. Was it his unfailing eclecticism that accounts for his universal appeal?

SCO: Like Jaco, he took the music that was already out there, and added something soulful and indisputably unique, exemplified by that marvelous voice of his. But he was also an excellent musician - besides his piano playing, many folks may not know that Ray played a mean alto sax, back in the days when he immersed himself in jazz. But he could do it all, from jazz, to gospel, to R&B to country. To me, that defines true genius, and Ray had that.

DG: I'm tempted to say that Ray's success made a lot of that music accessible to a wider audience.....

SCO: When you say something like that, however......accessible can be a very tricky term to put on the table. "Accessible" all too often implies a dumbing-down, and commonly, that is exactly the case. Granted, Ray did branch out to record popular music during the 60's, often backed by a full orchestra. Yet the music always retained a level of integrity and musicianship that was unparalleled, which is why many of those records are among the greatest in Ray's catalogue - like Sinatra, he had a knack for making great art out of contemporary popular music, from The Beatles to Hank Williams to The Everly Brothers. He wasn't afraid to try various styles, and was able to make 'em all work.

The John Scofield trio (featuring Steve Swallow on bass and Bill Stewart on drums) plays Regattabar in Cambridge on September 20th and 21st, then takes part in inspiRAYtion at Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, September 22nd. For more info, and to purchase tix, visit the links below:

John Scofield Trio at Regattabar

inspiRAYtion: A Tribute To Ray Charles

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