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
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—
What pedals does one take to an orchestral
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
“Polo Towers” is a wild one. Where did that tune
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
That’s a cool chord. Can you explain what you
play during the chromatic-sounding head melody
There’s nothing to explain. You just need
to check out the notes, and they are what
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
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
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