STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
A master at bebop, jazz-fusion, funk, blues and rock, guitar legend and composer John Scofield continues to expand his creative reach.
His latest project, a live duo effort with New Orleans based British musician Jon Cleary, delves into the rich history of deep Southern blues.
“I met Jon in the 80’s,” recalls Scofield from his home in Katonah, N.Y. “I’ve been a fan of his for years. We made a record in 2009 called “Piety Street,” which was all gospel music. Jon is a great pianist and singer. He’s actually a Brit from New Orleans, one of the great keepers of the flame in New Orleans piano tradition. He is a real fountain of knowledge and one of the great R&B singers of our time.“
“This is a special project,” adds Scofield. “It’s just the two of us. You’ve probably heard of Dr. John. Well, that tradition is coming back as well as the earlier days with Professor Long Hair and people like that. We play a lot of R&B classic music from the 50’s, where a lot of these songs came from. So it’s stuff by Willie Johns, Professor Long Hair, Johnny “Guitar” Watson — songs that we both love, and we do a little music from ‘Piety.’”
“I hope people are attentive,” says Scofield. “I hope we hold their attention and they get in the groove and love the music. That’s all I can ever hope for — that what we play will speak to them somehow, and people that love music will love us. It’s nothing more than that.”
Scofield cites Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino and George Benson as his greatest jazz influences. He fondly recalls his fascination and desire to make music his life calling as a teenager in the late 60’s.
“When I decided to be a musician, in my head it was this unbelievable alternative world that existed and was so strong with youth culture that it was so attractive and overwhelming,” recalls Scofield. “It was this incredible thing that seemed to me to be the only alternative to being a businessman like my dad, which I knew I didn’t want to do. I wanted to be an artist, and the music scene was there and people could make a living at it.”
“When I started out, the greats of jazz were not really influenced so much by rock and roll, but my generation grew-up playing both,” adds Scofield. “I wanted even more of that soulful guitar sound. I wanted blues guys. That’s where Clapton and Hendrix were coming from. B.B. King — he wrote the book on it. Albert King, Otis Rush, Freddy King — I really loved those guys too. It’s all the techniques of blues guitar playing that went into rock and roll, and all that stuff was available to us. We brought that back into the jazz arena.”
After enrolling at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1970, Scofield left three years into his studies to pursue a career in music. Decades later, in the late 90s, he received an honorary Doctorate from Berklee.
Scofield signed a recording contract with Enja Records and released his self-titled debut in 1977. With the decade coming to a close, he formed a trio with mentor Steve Swallow (bass) and Adam Nussbaum (drums), later replaced by Bill Stewart. This formation would become Scofield’s signature group.
“The great thing about jazz music, I think, is it really accents the individual,” says Scofield. “Everybody is allowed to be their own person and to do it their way when taking a jazz improvised solo. We were just able to do it a little bit differently than our predecessors. Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall, as great as they were, we just did it a little different. Even though we copied them, there were other aspects too. It’s great to be a part of this chain that keeps going.”
Scofield joined Miles Davis in 1982 and contributed to the albums “Star People” (1983), “Decoy” (1984) and “You’re Under Arrest” (1985).
Throughout his career, Scofield has released nearly fifty solo and collaborative albums and worked in a variety of music genres with numerous notable artists, including Pat Martino, Herbie Hancock, Jaco Pastorious, Pat Metheny and John Mayer.
“I think there are a lot of things that I can’t do (laughs),” says Scofield. “I’ve made a zillion records and been around for a long time. Guitar works in all these different kinds of music. Just the fact that guitar was an element in country-western, blues, jazz, rock and roll and folk music has really exposed me to so many areas of music by being interested in the guitar ever since I was 12 years old. I really like it, because it allows me to express different parts of my musical interests and I’ve learned from each one of these situations.”
“People want to see you in a different context,” adds Scofield. “They’re always saying, ‘Oh, what’s the new project you are doing?’ I go back and forth between these different areas, maybe more so than a lot of people. I really like playing in all these different situations.”
Humbled by the critical acclaim and fan adulation that surrounds him, Scofield cherishes his success as well as his creative opportunities.
“I’ve been lucky,” says Scofield. “I’m proud that I’ve been on the scene and around these great players like Jaco and Miles and all the great guys that I’ve played with over the years. I’m so proud that I’ve been able to develop my playing, my composing and being a musician. Because I keep playing with these guys that are so good, they inspire me and, hopefully, I inspire them. When that happens, then the audience gets inspired.”