Scofield swings into Jerusalem

John Scofield has his fingers in many musical pies.

John Scofield (photo credit: Ccourtesy)
John Scofield
(photo credit: Ccourtesy)
John Scofield has been there and done that. The 60-year-old jazz guitarist is the star turn of the admittedly measly portion devoted to the jazz genre by the Israel Festival this year. He will perform, with his quartet of pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Ben Street and drummer Bill Stewart, at the Jerusalem Theater on June 4.
For Scofield it’s all a matter of accumulated life experiences and the music he has picked up along the way. “When I was really young, in the ’60s, I kinda started with hippie music,” he says. “That embraced folk music, blues, Indian music, rock and other stuff. There was a period when I was getting into all that stuff, which also included jazz. When you were a hipster back in, say, in 1967, you got into all of that. I think I’ve always had that attitude.”
This is borne out by the way Scofield’s career has evolved over the last 40 or so years. He has mixed it with some of the greats of the jazz pantheon – icons like bass players Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden and trumpeter Miles Davis. Each of these had their own very different approach to the discipline, and Scofield’s success in combining them is a reflection of his ability to absorb and adapt to different mindsets.
“You know, when you start out as a guitar player it’s very difficult to be a jazz purist,” he states. “I really do like all these forms of music, you know, like country and western, and bluegrass.”
Having weathered the advents of rock and pop, by the late ’60s Scofield’s musical focus had settled firmly and finally on jazz.
“When I was 17 I had totally fallen in love with music,” he recalls. “I don’t really know why that was. I met some really good people who turned me on to the music.”
But this newfound passion was also spawned by Scofield’s earlier explorations.
“I primarily loved the [jazz] music, and I could see it was related to all this other stuff that I liked. I was very serious about the music as a youngster. I loved Bach and I also listened to [Indian] ragas.”
That, says the guitarist, connected neatly to the work of some his jazz idols who fed off similar sources. “Why wouldn’t you listen to Miles Davis and [iconic saxophonist] John Coltrane, and bebop too?” While Scofield had an instinctive feel for jazz, he says there was a cerebral attraction too. “It also appealed to me intellectually, because jazz was the high art form. I fell for it hook, line and sinker.”
WITH SUCH an eclectic taste in music, it was a perfectly natural development when Scofield landed a berth in Davis’s band, spending around three years with the trumpeter in the early 1980s and playing on three Davis records.
“That was great, to play with Miles. But, you know, I have been so lucky that in my early years I got to play with so many of my idols. I got to play with Mingus and [trumpeter] Chet Baker, and [baritone saxophonist] Gerry Mulligan, and [tenor saxophonist] Joe Henderson, who was one of my favorites.”
Scofield says he learned a lot just by hanging out with some of the titans.
“I spent a lot of time with these guys, especially with Miles. It was just great being in New York and meeting and playing with all these amazing musicians, people like [bass player] Steve Swallow, [vibraphonist] Gary Burton and [bass player] Charlie Haden.”
Scofield has played in Israel several times before, including a couple of performances at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat with Haden, where the two played a program made up entirely of acoustic numbers. At the time it was something of a surprise to see Scofield on acoustic guitar, as in those years he was very much into a high-energy, funky approach to jazz, putting a string of albums in that style, such as A Go Go (1998), the Indian music-tinted Uberjam (2002) and Up All Night (2003). Mind you, considering his first professional gig was with two of the mainstays of the 1970s jazz fusion scene, drummer Billy Cobham and keyboardist George Duke, that is hardly surprising.
But for Scofield, it is all about learning from and sharing with his professional colleagues.
As legendary pianist-composer-band leader Duke Ellington famously said, “There are two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind.”
Scofield certainly goes along with that ethic.
“Jazz is this big thing that we all kind of share,” he says. “It is a language and we all share the vocabulary. Jazz musicians that study the music all over the world share certain phrases and ideas about how to improvise. Miles was the absolute focal point, for me, of this whole thing. He is my favorite of all modern jazz guys, and I think a lot of people share that view.”
Scofield’s tenure with Davis was a formative phase in the guitarist’s artistic growth, and helped to complement the lessons of his early furtive musical explorations.
“Getting to play with Miles reinforced all the ideas I had already,” he says, adding that it was really a matter of getting his educational house in order. “It was really about how to approach the music in concrete terms, like how to use space, how to play lyrically, to play dead-on rhythm and how to play sort of blues stuff.”
Although Scofield had already performed valuable sideman duties with some of the jazz greats by then, it was still nice to get an encouraging pat on the back from the groundbreaking trumpeter. “He said: ‘you know, you can play.’ And I thought, ‘well, I must be on the right track.’ That was a gift.”
Perhaps the most valuable thing Davis did for Scofield was to get him to challenge himself. Some years ago, famous British guitarist John McLaughlin, who played with Davis in the late 1960s, told me that Davis asked him to play a solo as though he didn’t know how to play the guitar. “I don’t think Miles meant that literally,” proffers Scofield. “He probably wanted John to get away from the things that were easy and to achieve some inner moments, to play some in-the-moment type stuff. How to get to that, and how to psych yourself, was Miles’s thing.”
Judging by his output, Scofield has certainly managed to psych himself up for many years now. He says he is going to spread it about a bit at his forthcoming concert in Jerusalem. “My current quartet is, for want of a better word, is a sort of traditional jazz group. Although we do play some funky stuff, we’ll play a bunch of ballads too. My latest record is called A Moment’s Peace, and that’s all ballads. We also play some things from my older records, and also some jazz standards.”
So Scofield is still mixing things up. “I have a bunch of bands I play with,” he says. “I play with [veteran high-energy avant groove trio] Medeski, Martin and Wood, and I guest with [funk-jazz trio] Soulive, who are pretty popular.”
But the quartet he is bringing here appears to have pride of place in Scofield’s current work schedule. He says the members of the group offer him a wide musical swath to work within.
“Bill Stewart is one of the greatest jazz drummers I’ve ever played with. He and the bass player, Ben Street, are experts at swinging, so we’re definitely going to do some of that.”
As diva Ella Fitzgerald sang – to Duke Ellington’s music – so unforgettably over half a century ago: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Keeping one’s fingers in so many musical pies can also be a challenge. “It keeps me fresh,” says Scofield. “I’m hooked on it, but I’m still trying figure out where to fit me into it.”
The John Scofield Quartet will play at the Jerusalem Theater on June 4 at 9:30 p.m. For more information: