John Scofield

April-May, 1981

John Scofield is smoking. Huffing, puffing, you know the rest. Susan Scofield, wife, sits at a table with a cassette recorder. She’s recording. Sometimes, when John raises his voice too loudly, she walks out on him. Tonight, she perseveres. John is playing loudly, apparently not too. Relaxed and jolly, John Abercrombie, friend, guitarist, smiles beatifically from a couch in the back of New York’s Jazz Forum, where tonight the jazz is felicitous.

Scofield leads his trio of bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum through the six-pack of songs that comprises his translucent new record, Bar Talk, which is not only his finest (and a three-way pun at that), but the finest guitar trio session since Metheny’s Bright Size Life in ’76. Rocking back and forth on firmly planted duck feet, cigarette dangling a la Elvin, amp exhaling long breaths of silvery metallic precision, Scofield reaches to straddle the point where hard swing, blues feel, rock energy, and post-bop improvisational elegance come together like so many states in the Southwest: John Scofield’s Four Corner’s Monument.

His voluminous lines — which a few years back struck me as little more than zazzy rollercoasters of unrelieved emotion — tonight are well-paced, orderly, intricate. Mobius strips of sound, they still swoosh and swag like they always did, but now they’re effectively scissored by open spaces and sutured by block chords. What’s more, Scofield’s sound isn’t monolithic in the manner of so many electric guitarists: he often shifts from a light, sweet, pastoral voice to a dark, nasty, grimy one within a single thematic passage or solo. “Those are the two faces of the music I know, the two faces of what I am,” he explains. “The beautiful European harmony and then the blues feeling. My heart is one with B.B. King and Otis Rush, but I know about all the other notes too.”

All the other notes, indeed. But just because he knows about them, doesn’t mean he feels compelled to play them all the time. In this regard, Scofield’s different from the heroic fusioneers, whose last hope, Al DiMeola, undermines ungodly talent with penny artistry on a nightly basis. Scofield’s style — despite his voracious lines — is as much one of feeling as of aggressive technique. He fits in the gaping hole between the Charlie Christian-through-Jim Hall players and the virtuosic McLaughlin tradition — a niche shared by John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny. Abercrombie fills the space with distanced romanticism, Metheny with open-country enthusiasm; Scofield attacks it, borrowing from both edges, with blue-bop fervor.

Pop Metaphor Time In The Big City

Cold as an undertaker’s smile, full of night and flu and the wail of obscurity, a belligerent wind kicks off the Hudson, towards which our subject advances with iced eyes and bent back. The interviewer, who accompanies him, stopped extracting pertinent data for music magazine column three-beers-at-the-corner-bar ago. They’re headed for Westbeth, an artists’ co-op (formerly a Ma Bell lab) on the fringe of the condemned highways, decaying piers, and gay life that is west Greenwich Village. Clenched ’tween the teeth of the frostbite westerly, Scofield shudders, “You feel this? Shhheeeeeetttt! This is my life, man, this is my god damn life.” Pertinent data.

Voice Over: The Medium Is

“The act of improvising is my whole life, playing what I feel every second. The legacy left us, starting in this century, shaped by people like Louis Armstrong, has nothing to do with color. What came down in this country changed all our lives. Me, I’m a true fusion person: I grew up with the Kingston Trio and Muddy Waters which led me to Robert Johnson which led me to Yardbird to Coltrane to Miles which led me to Stockhausen which led me to Bartok to Bach to Beethoven. There are no ethnic borders: Coltrane came through pure thought, and so did Bach. Pure art, pure sound; twelve notes and what’s in between. That’s all that matters. Makes no difference if you’re from Vienna or the Deep South or Tokyo or Wilton, Connecticut.

Flashback Montage: Co-opting The Old Science Teacher 101

Wilton, Connecticut, middle-class suburbia. Mother rents guitar for John, age 11. John reads in some music rag that the Beatles came from Chuck Berry and Little Richard. (Imagine that?) Begins listening to blues gee-tar, B.B. to Grant Green and the groove players. Pre-pubescent John gigs in integrated bands, integrated clubs in Conn. blue-collar towns. A sentimental education. Finds a bassist — good God! — with James Brown records. Forms The Skylarks. Adam Nussbaum, age 8, hangs around their rehearsals; precocious lil’ feller. John does poorly in high school, despite allowing both art and science teachers to play in band. Homework: trekking to NYC for the Mothers, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Gary Burton, Coryell, Hendrix.

Stymied by first page of Plato’s Dialogues in entrance test for St. John’s college. Rejected. U.Conn. — also rejected. Where to? To Boston, Guitar Heaven. Enrolls at Berklee through ’73. Learns to read and write. Takes from Mic Goodrick, the guy in Bahstin at the time. Teaches John Jim Hallesque left-hand-hammer-strings/right-hand-just-glance-with-pick technique. Aha!! Gary Burton waits for rush hour to end before driving home, jams with eager boys at John’s pad. Daily rush hour, daily jams. 1974: Goodrick can’t make Gerry Mulligan date at Jazz Workshop, sends in young John. Leads to Mulligan/Baker Carnegie Hall Reunion and record; “My roommate drove me down to the gig with my little amp and I just kinda slid into Carnegie Hall. I was scared, scared totally shitless and it’s on the record; I get lost, stone lost on ‘Bernie’s Tune’.”

Even better, a gig with Airto. Opens for Cheech and Chong somewhere in Jersey. “Many, many things thrown at us, a real treat.” That’s entertainment. Airto splits, will send for band. Uh-huh, sure. Never does. “That was my first big break.” Gigs with drummer Horacee Arnold. Billy Cobham hears and likes, snags Sco when Abercrombie deserts for DeJohnette. Two years with Billy. Labeled, ugh, a “fusion” player. Becomes guitar hero, jazz version, in Europe. Called “Snowflake” by members of all-ebony Cobham-Duke band. Learns Latin — “straight up and down eighth notes” — from Billy. Mixes with Elvin poly-swing, Tony drive, Jack rabbit chop. Plays with ’em all.

Voice Over: 0 To 60 MPH In 8.2

“Why did fusion die such an early death, at least creatively? Because guys started making Big Money and then everybody wanted to make a big record on a backbeat, or a funky record, and finally now they could do it. The whole thing got formularized to the max: people forgot they were playing music. Everybody played to what that audience wanted, and that audience responds to speed and technique. It’s just juvenile. It’s like: who has the fastest car? You can go to the auto show and the boat show too.”

Scene 3: Escape From Linear City

The Gary Burton Quartet plays the near-empty Ivanhoe Theatre in Chicago. Scofield, who’d filled the chair vacated by Pat Metheny, rips through a series of vehement, earthy, violent solos — fine in themselves, but awkward in the context of Burton’s dreamy pastels. (Image: Bull Scofield charging through Burton’s china shop.) It’s as if Scofield, stripped to his guitar more than visa versa, was soloing in a different room from the rest of the band: a room where vertical wars with horizontal, rough edges splinter and poke, a conspiracy of sixteenth notes hover in the corner. Out the only window, he could see a train passing in the night. A four-years-many-miles-later explanation: “I wanted to play a certain way which wasn’t into Gary’s thing, though I love his music. My sound must have been a reaction to that style. I was listening to Coltrane daily, for hours and hours. I was playing nothing but single note lines, just like a horn player. It was Linear City for me. But when I joined Dave Liebman’s group, which was pianoless, and formed my own trio, I heard what chords would add to the music. I used to never, never even think of playing a chord during a solo.”
Scene 4: Scofield’s Dialogues

Between a circuit of Japan with native son Terumaso Hino and a trek around Australia with his own group, Scofield goes domestic. While taping new music for the road, he lounges on a carpet that crawls with album covers, turtles and ash trays. If he wanted, he could do up a fine tape of Mingus, Konitz, McShann, Orsted-Pederson, Liebman, and Cobham with only one common denominator: Scofield as a sideman. The interviewer, good natured pest that he is, nudges the discussion toward the nexus of art and economics. John, how many records have you been on since the Mulligan date in ’75? About 60, says Susan. No, it can’t be that many, says John. Yes it is, says Susan. Is that too many John? I have to make a living, says John, it’s only recently I could even afford to say “No” once in a while. Would you like to have some of those dates back to try again? Of course, says John, but jazz is a risk, you should always risk something. These days there are a lot of cats who just want to set up something perfect for themselves on their own records. Susan, laughing, in response, says the career of Scofield The Studio Stud has the classic four stages, beginning in the mid-’70s and ending who-knows-when: 1) Who in the hell is John Scofield? 2) Get me John Scofield! 3) Get me someone who sounds like Scofield! 4) Who in the hell is John Scofield? So it goes. [Funny how that comment gets around, David Spinozza said the same thing in Musician August 1979.]

Voice Over: Rodney Dangerfield Is A White Jazz Guitarist

“All the critics, and everybody who believes ’em, are looking for the latest, newest thing. That’s why the free players get so much press. It’s all, hey, who’s gonna be the next Great Black Man or the next Brubeck or whatever. All this looking for what comes next and who comes next is total bullshit because Armstrong played the most beautiful choruses imaginable and that’s what jazz improvisation is, and that’s that. And you know what, some of my best friends are white drummers. Really.”

Scene 5: Back To The Head And Out

Scofield’s filing down the edges of his big black cat, “Fat Dancer.” (Right, right, a tune for the cat.) He purples the two-part melody with tacks on the cool blues section and lace when it gives way to the sunshine of a gospelish chord progression. Then, a humid smear of notes and he’s into his solo. By the time his cigarette renounces its ash, which tumbles dangerously shirtward, the head of that damn cat has been stroked, dismantled, vivisected, squashed, abandoned, reclaimed, bathed, renovated and polished, polished to a chordal finish that’s lustrous and worn and warm from the friction. Around the room, smiles puncture the bluegrey smaze. Warmer still, for Scofield, the flash of applause for Christian, for B.B., for Hall, for Otis, for him.

Scofield’s Guitars

Scofield uses a tremendously and endearingly beat up 1958 Gibson ES 335, in cooperation with medium Light Gauge strings and a Polytone Special Mini-Brute 4 amp. On occasion, he also picks at an Ibanez Artist Series model, and an Ibanez acoustic.