“I PLAY LIKE 200 NIGHTS A YEAR,” SAYS WORKAHOLIC AND JAZZ LEGEND JOHN Scofield. “If I want to go back to, say, Phoenix, I can’t show up with the same band I was there with two years earlier. They want another project.” That’s how Sco explains why he finds himself in so many disparate music environments, from his jazz trio to Phil Lesh & Friends to collaborations with Medeski, Martin & Wood to his current bag: gospel blues. His new record, Piety Street [Emarcy], features Scofield doing his thing alongside pianist Jon Cleary, bassist George Porter, Jr., and ex-Rutles guitarist Ricky Fataar on drums. Like always, he manages to sound like himself while simultaneously fitting right in with a whole new style of music.
In the literature for Piety Street you talk about wanting to do a blues project, and how that led to this gospel record. Why didn’t you just do a blues record?
The reason I’m hesitant is that there are so many blues bands out there. It’s been done so well. I was always a bit of a blues snob—I was into Albert and B.B. and thought that that was the shit and still do. Then SRV came along and he played incredibly and a lot of people followed in his footsteps. Now there’s a blues band on every corner, and a lot of bad ones, unfortunately. It’s like bebop— it’s something that you love so much that was done 50 years ago and there get to be these parameters around it. And I get a little bit too in my head about that—it has to be like this to be right. So it helps me, actually, to get into some areas that are a little off center and then I don’t feel like I’m tampering with sacred ground. I knew I wanted to go to New Orleans and record a bluesy kind of record, knowing the musicians and the feelings you can get down there. I’m a fan of old gospel stuff. I’ve collected it over the years. So I thought, “Why not just play those tunes?” Even though we did all gospel songs on this record, I think it’s a return to real blues playing for me, which is where I started. Blues and R&B were my favorite things when I was a kid, before I became a jazz head.
The guitar on the opener, “That’s Enough,” has a real naked, intimate quality. How did you record to get that sound?
First of all, we had a great engineer, James Farber, who specializes in recording jazz and getting the sound of an instrument with as little tampering as possible. They would set up the mics and try to avoid the preamps and even avoid the board if possible. Just straight through. We recorded to Pro Tools and we mixed down to 1/4" tape. I wanted to get a real natural sound for everything. My sound has become less processed the older I get. For this, I just plugged into the amps with no effects, except for one or two tunes where I used a pedal. It was my Ibanez into the amp.
What was your amp?
Here’s what happened. I’ve been playing AC30s and because the session was in New Orleans, I wasn’t able to bring my amps. I asked Vox to send me some really cherry amps from their hand-wired Heritage series—an AC30 and an AC15. We had to delay travel by a day because of hurricane Gustav. They were afraid it was going to cause flooding and they evacuated the city. So, UPS never made it with my amps. There was a Music Man in the studio and George Porter, Jr. was able to get me an AC30—a weird old half-stack with a 4x12 cab—and a Matchless DC- 30, so that’s what I played through. I used the Music Man only on the one tune, “Angel of Death,” where I wanted vibrato. On the other tunes I’m playing through both the Vox and the Matchless.
On “Motherless Child,” you play what start off sounding like typical blues licks, but you have a knack for landing on an unexpected note. Talk about your phrasing on that tune.
That’s just part of my repertoire. To me those notes don’t sound unexpected because I’ve been doing that for so long. That comes from my jazz background and what I learned from the way Miles played. It’s no one thing—it’s not a scale or an arpeggio exactly. I am playing blues but I’m also arpeggiating the chords and stuff. At first it’s all B minor, then it goes to D, E7, and Gmaj7, and that’s where I play more like bop lines and it comes out more jazzy.
The tone changes under the vocal to a thinner tone with more sting. How are you getting that sound?
On that tune, I’m sure I was just playing through the amps. So, if the tone changes, it’s because I changed pickups, or more likely I just backed off the volume. I used mostly the bridge pickup on that tune, and when you back off the volume the tone get a little thinner, on my guitar anyway.
Your solo is fatter and more overdriven.
I just turned up all the way for the solo.
You get totally different tones on “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.”
That’s the one tune I put some effects on. First, I did the rhythm track through a Leslie and then I did an overdub for the solo. The solo has an auto-filter from the Digitech Whammy Wah, and I’m using a Pro Co Rat pedal too, so it’s not just distortion from the amp. It’s overdriven with a pedal. Other than that I didn’t use any distortion pedals.
The classic jazz/gospel rig of a Whammy Wah, a Rat, and an AC30?
Oh yeah [laughs]! The purists gave up on me a long time ago, man. I can do whatever I want.
On that subject, you’ve really put yourself out there in several different styles. Once some players achieve a little notoriety, they’re afraid to deviate from what brought them success, but you never have been.
I’m still a victim of fear, I’m just afraid to do the same thing twice. At this point everyone expects me to do something different. Back from when I was a sideman, I’d be playing with four or five different bands. It was a great thing. It all felt fresh, and I’m addicted to that feeling of freshness to this day. I’ll play with my trio with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart; and then I’ll go to playing with Trio Beyond with Jack De- Johnette and Larry Goldings, which is a real wild, free thing; then to MMW, which is a whole different thing; and then to this gospel project. They all feel great to me and I never have time to get sick of any of them.
It’s important to be yourself, but you want to get into the music and have something to say in it that really fits the songs. I’m not a jack-of-all-trades like some people. I’m not saying this in a negative sense, but there are studio guys who play a Strat on one tune, an L-5 on another tune, and a Martin on the next, and they sound like a rock guy, a jazz guy, and a country guy. I’m not like that at all. I play the same guitar all the time and I play my licks. Even though I do these different bags, there are a lot of places I wouldn’t go. It wouldn’t be right. I don’t see much difference between John Scofield the jazz guitarist and John Scofield the gospel blues guitarist or whatever I am. Those two guys are very similar. The trick is to not play everything you know every time you play. Because then you’re going to be playing too much. If you’re really into a style of music, you don’t want to just cram stuff in that’s out of place. Intellectually we can all say, “Oh, it’s so interesting,” but it’s not unless it works at a gut level.