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John Scofield

January 1, 2011
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How do you follow up an inspired Ray Charles tribute, a mixed bag trio effort, and an authentic-sounding traditional gospel album? John Scofield decided to collaborate on an orchestral work backed by more than 50 of the best musicians in the Netherlands. “The idea was to expand tunes I had originally written for small groups, and for me to improvise along in much the same way that I usually play,” explains Scofield.

A project such as 54 [Emarcy] can easily falter under the weight of its own lofty conception, or because most orchestra players groove like rickety rocking chairs. The Metropole Orkest, however, swings like a troupe of jungle monkeys. “It’s actually a big band combined with an orchestra,” Scofield clarifies. And having worked with the likes of Pat Metheny and Steve Vai, the Metropole is no stranger to guitar icons.

The Metropole demonstrates its powerful dynamic punch and its grace within the opening moments of “Carlos,” an ode to Carlos Santana that Scofield originally wrote for 1995’s Groove Elation. “I love what [conductor] Vince Mendoza did with the arrangements,” says Scofield. “He wrote interludes and other things that added a lot to my original pieces, and helped take us on a compelling journey.”

What adjustments did you have to make to play along with a band the size of a football team?

We played a bunch of concerts before recording, and I realized my guitar was too loud at the first one. I had to turn down because even though there were 53 of them and only one of me, an orchestra is a delicate thing. An electric guitar through a Vox AC30 can outmuscle it.

Did you record live?

Yes. We worked in the huge Dutch national radio studio complex because the Metropole Orkest is part of the Dutch radio and television system. We rehearsed in one big room, but we split into two rooms to record. Guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and percussion were all in one room improvising. The orchestra was in another room with Vince conducting his arrangements, which are similar to what a great piano player might use to color a piece. He cues it in and out, and it’s just the greatest because there’s nothing like hearing an orchestra behind you. We watched him on a television monitor.

Did you play the same Ibanez you’ve been using for years?

I used the same Ibanez, a couple of pedals, and a Vox AC30 that they found that for me. One of the good things about playing a Vox is that since it’s an English company, there are plenty of vintage Vox amps to be found around Europe. The engineer miked my amp in an isolation booth so that I could fix any mistakes. I wound up doing a couple of overdubs— nobody’s perfect.

What pedals does one take to an orchestral session?

I had my full pedalboard there, but I didn’t use it very much. I used a Rat distortion and a DigiTech XP-100 Whammy- Wah on “Peculiar.”

It seems that the first track, “Carlos,” is basically a D minor vamp, and that you’re mainly soloing in the Dorian mode until the turnaround changes come, at which point your runs become more involved. Can you explain what’s going on at that point?

You’ve got to play through the chord changes, but I don’t think distinctly in Dorian during the vamp because there are notes inbetween. The Dorian mode is really just a scale. There’s more to what I play, but I can’t really talk about it because you’ve got hear that stuff.

“Polo Towers” is a wild one. Where did that tune come from?

That’s originally from Uberjam. I tuned the low E string down a step-and-a-half to C# in order to play the hanging chord in the introduction. It’s a C#7 13 #9 where the 13 and the flatted 7 are right next to each other, and it incorporates open strings. The low string is an open C#. I don’t play anything on the 5th string. I play an F on the D string, Bb on the G string, and the B and E strings are open.

That’s a cool chord. Can you explain what you play during the chromatic-sounding head melody that follows?

There’s nothing to explain. You just need to check out the notes, and they are what they are.

I know it’s difficult, but can you take a shot at describing some of the fantastic moves you make— whether they are pieces of chords, or chromatic notes—that take your playing beyond the box, but not too far out?

I won’t describe them. I’m not going to oversimplify what has been my life’s work, which is to develop a vocabulary in jazz. You learn licks, phrases, and songs, and then you try to piece together what you’ve learned tastefully so that you don’t sound like you are regurgitating licks. You listen to what’s going on for inspiration, and if you trust your own mind and instinct, then you will come up with another idea. On 54, I found it easy to have something to say because there was a lot of input from the orchestra. Eventually, you realize that you’ve said enough, and then it’s time to shut up and end your solo.

You kick off “Twang” with a bluesy shuffle vamp before taking several twists and turns. What’s the story behind that song?

The original appeared on my record Grace Under Pressure with Bill Frisell. A lot of my tunes are built that way. I start with a vamp— which in this case is that funky blues thing in the key of E—and then it goes to another section with changes in the melody. I like “Twang” because there is a pop music element to the bridge. I was sort of surprised when I wrote it because, well, I’m a jazz guy.

I hope I didn’t come across as rude when I was waxing on about how you can’t explain licks and stuff like that. It’s just a pet peeve of mine. I realize that’s part of what the magazine does, but for me it’s a little too close to “jazz guitar in ten easy steps.” I won’t dumb it down because I think smart people are going to get into it for what it is, and they want to know the real deal. Jazz takes strong desire, and it requires a lot of practice. Once it’s ingrained it’s like a magic trick done with mirrors. You become fluent in a certain way that’s even greater than your own understanding of how you got there. People think fluency in jazz is a big intellectual thing, but it’s actually just a lot of work. You have to do the time.

Do you teach?

I don’t do private lessons, but I do teach a guitar class at NYU. I do a lot of talking and playing. I’m a loud mouth. I can talk all day, and play all night. I don’t teach theory because it’s like figuring out the alphabet, or math. Look at a piano keyboard, and the geometry of music is just there. We all have to do that. I recently read that Howlin’ Wolf took mail order music theory lessons later in life. I love that because Wolf always seemed to have a direct input to raw emotion— a gift from above. But he was also interested in music, and he wanted to understand the theory of it as well.

How has your guitar playing improved in recent years?

My right hand is a little better than it used to be. I still use a pick, but I use my fingers as well. I’ll palm my pick and use my thumb and two fingers. Occasionally, I’ll do bossa nova-style comping with my thumb and three fingers in order to achieve four voices. I love the sound of the thumb and fingers on a guitar, but I go for the pick on bebop-style single-note lines.

What are you excited about right now?

I’m very excited about my live DVD, The Paris Concert, which should be coming out any time now. It’s my quartet at the New Morning club, and it’s part of a series on a German label, Inakustic. The playing is better than most of the studio stuff I’ve done if you want to hear us improvise, blow, and get hot. I think performance DVDs are great for jazz because playing live has always been a huge part of it, and now you get up-close footage in HD quality.

My next studio recording is scheduled for January, and it is going to consist of a quartet with bass, drums, and the great Mulgrew Miller on piano playing ballads.

I’m also doing a blues project with Robben Ford. I think it’s going to be called Blues Finger. We’re playing six nights at the Blue Note in New York in December, and then we’ve got a couple of gigs next year including the Hollywood Bowl in June, I’m pretty sure. We’ll see if Robin and I click, and where it goes.

Piety Street was originally supposed to be a blues project, but you changed it because you thought blues had been done to death. Did you decide to finally go down the blues road because of Robben Ford?

Yes. Robben said that we should do something together. I said, “Man, I want to play blues!”

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