John Scofield Goes Back to the Future on "Past Present"

“You can’t really recreate anything, unfortunately,” says John Scofield.

“You can’t really recreate anything, unfortunately,” says John Scofield. “You can have a great moment of inspiration at home practicing on your couch, but recreating that same magic later in the studio is difficult to do. In fact, you might not even be able to recreate it the next moment on your couch.”

The good news, according to Scofield, is that in that next moment, something else will happen.

“When you believe in that and trust in that, you’re way ahead of the game,” says the New York guitarist. He learned the power of trusting in each musical moment from a true legend of jazz—Miles Davis, with whom he performed and recorded extensively in the early ’80s.

“I feel like there’s a before-Miles me and an after-Miles me,” says Scofield. “I idolized him so much, that when he told me, ‘You sound good,’ it meant everything to me. And one thing Miles really believed in was spontaneity, and trying to capture it. All those old jazz guys, man, they really knew about that—about how spontaneity is the essence of the music. They knew that it’s the off-the-cuff sort of approach that inspires music from our subconscious, and that that’s the best stuff—the fresh stuff you get when you’re not just playing hot licks.”

Bursting with exactly this sort of off-the-cuff “fresh stuff ” is Scofield’s new quartet album, Past Present [Impulse!]. The record reunites Scofield with two players with whom he has enjoyed great musical spontaneity over the years, including on his celebrated early-’90s quartet albums on Blue Note records—drummer Bill Stewart and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. The album is also a reminder that, as Scofield learned decades ago from bassist/composer Steve Swallow, jazz gets even deeper if you are more than just a great instrumentalist.

“It turns out you can really make a personal thing out of jazz if you write music, too,” says Scofield, who composed all nine tunes on Past Present. “I’ve been writing since my 20s, when Steve started encouraging me to compose. A lot of my favorite jazz players are people like Monk and Wayne Shorter—guys who deliver great compositions on their records.”

So, you’re putting the band back together, huh?

Yeah, for this record—and we’re doing a big tour, too. I actually had many of the tunes written three years ago, and when I wrote them I was thinking “jazz record,” but then I did Überjam Deux, instead, which is a much more electric kind of thing. For these tunes, though, I thought, “Well, who am I going to record them with? Why don’t I get the best sax player and drummer I can think of?”

So, I chose Joe Lovano and Bill Stewart—not because I played with them a bunch in the ’90s, but simply because they are my favorite cats. The only difference between the original lineup and now is that we have Larry Grenadier on bass instead of Dennis Irwin, who passed away from cancer in 2008. With these guys, it’s not just how we play individually, it’s the way we play together as a group. We really listen to each other and play off each other.

But all great jazz musicians do that, don’t they? And you’ve played with a lot of great musicians.

I have, but there are some who actually don’t listen that much. In this group, we’ve developed a sound together. We’ve put in so many hours playing together that we know how each other plays, and we have this place that we can go to. I love that. It’s harder to develop that sort of chemistry nowadays, because everybody, including myself, is doing special projects all the time. Promoters don’t want you to show up with the same group time after time. They always want to construct special bills and lineups for you.

How did you present the songs to your band?

I wrote out the music lead-sheet style— melody with chord symbols, and maybe an occasional bass line or harmony part. This time, though, I didn’t give out the handwritten charts. I gave those to a copyist who ran them through Sibelius, so we had lead sheets that were really nice.

I like you how you have fun with the blues form on the title track, “Past Present.”

One thing that defines that song is the bass line—which I did write out—because it doesn’t start on the root. It starts on the 6 and then climbs up. First, Larry and I are playing the line in unison, and then we drift off of it, but the bass keeps referring to it. This gives the song a different kind of propulsion and vibe, although it’s still just a 4/4 swing tune.

You also create cool splashes of harmony in the head by having the guitar and sax diverge from each other in interesting ways.

The guitar part is the main melody. Joe’s part is the harmony, and the way I come up with harmony parts, being that we’re in modern times, is that I loop the main melody using my Boomerang Phrase Sampler—slower than the performance tempo, on a song like this! Then, I can mess around with different harmonies against it. On this song, I created the harmony half by ear, and half scientifically— you know, by thinking, “I could employ a little counterpoint here, or follow in thirds there,” etc.

Unlike the Überjam records, which feature a good amount of effects and Boomerang usage, this record sounds like you’re just using a straight ahead guitar/cable/amp setup.

You’re absolutely right. The guitar is an Ibanez AS200 like the sunburst one I usually play—but it’s an old one the company gave me in 1986. It now has a pair of Voodoo humbuckers in it, which sound cool. And the cables I use are Vovox, from Switzerland. They’re really high quality, and do seem to sound a little more hi-fi than regular cords.

The amp on the record is a ’64 Deluxe Reverb I bought about ten years ago at a music store in New York. I liked the way it sounded, but noticed it was really soft. Then, it just sort of died. I took it to a repairman, and he said, “This thing has been in a flood. You’re screwed.” I thought, “Oh, man,” and it sat in my basement for a few years. Then, last year, I brought it to a different guy for a second opinion. He replaced the transformer with another vintage one of the same type. Now, the amp is up and running and sounds great. I usually set the volume just above 3, for a touch of breakup. Fender’s reissue Deluxes are good, too, by the way. Rounding things out are D’Addario Standard heavy [celluloid] picks, and D’Addario strings gauged .012, .016, and .020 plain, and .032, .042, and .052 wound.

This is a great sounding album. Pop this CD in and it sounds like the band is in the room with you.

It sounds like that, but actually the drums were in a separate room from the rest of us. They were in a huge booth at Carriage House, the studio in Connecticut where we recorded.

Is it at all weird to play jazz with the drummer behind double glass?

Well, at first we tried it with everyone in the same room, but the drums just didn’t sound as good that way. Bill said, “It’s going to sound better in the booth,” so we did that and used headphones. All of us have done that so much that it wasn’t a problem. Even Rudy Van Gelder had a drum booth at his famous studio in New Jersey. His place was a huge room with high ceilings, and when I recorded there, the drums were in this big box that was open on the top and had windows on four walls. Plus, you had to use ’phones anyway, because he had the piano covered, and that was the only way to hear it.

Some of the song titles on Past Present, such as “Get Proud” and “Enjoy the Future!” are catchphrases from your son Evan, who succumbed to cancer two years ago. How much, if any, of this album is a tribute to Evan?

To tell you the truth, when I write music, I don’t ever write with any idea other than the music itself. So, it’s more that I was writing during the time when Evan was undergoing treatment, and a lot of the songs remind me of that time, so that’s where some of the titles came from. I wanted to honor Evan, yet I almost feel weird including him in the publicity, because I’m not trying to score points with anybody over what happened. There’s no “Tears in Heaven” on this record. It’s jazz. It’s about the music.

I’m sure that even on an off night, most fans seeing you and Joe Lovano trade solos are blown away. But what constitutes a really good musical performance for you?

It’s hard to know. First of all, musicians probably aren’t the best judges of their own performances. Maybe you’re totally grooving on the way you played, but it doesn’t actually sound any better to somebody else. Or, maybe you think, “I wish I’d done such-and-such differently,” and you get hung up on that, but actually the whole night was a lot better than you thought.

One thing I’ve found is that any time you have a bad night, it pretty much guarantees the next night will be pretty good. And any time you have a great night, it kind of guarantees that the next night won’t live up to that. After a great night, you might be thinking, “I’m there! I’m going to be a music master for the rest of my life.” But then you’re crushed back down to reality at the next gig. And you just have to accept it. Everything changes in life. I think we get better slowly, and don’t notice it.