It’s been a varied career for John Scofield. As with most jazz musicians, standing on those large shoulders that came before him was, at the time, what it justly was all about. This is true because jazz is an art form with old-school-style apprenticeship built right into the scene. That sweat-work provides a foundation that indubitably influences a myriad of futures—future sounds, form, context, composition and ultimately, future artistry. Accordingly, most people associate Scofield’s ineffaceable guitar work with the great Miles Davis—his touch graces three Davis albums—or with such scene-setters as Charles Mingus, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.
But, what many fail to realize is that although his newest release, ?berjam, is his fifth album for Verve Records—a number that most modern rock musicians could only dream of matching—he’s been recording as leader for over 30 years. It’s this type of stamina in the industry that pushes him, as it did all those who came before him, into the best kind of future—an uncharted one.
The problem that immediately plagues modern jazz listeners, as well as the noted musicians alike, is the need for explaining the new sounds/genres being created. In 1973, when Hancock unleashed the fury of the Headhunters upon the industry, perturbed people hit turbulent waters with fuzzy categorical lines, trying to pin it down. Now ask anybody about that pivotal album and it’s a definitive form of jazz pioneering. So, when Scofield himself starts to talk about his newest drift—which remarkably, as he explains, in many ways seems to be an old bent with a new twist—a variety of hyphenated words quickly float to the surface of a definition that nearly always ends in ill-attempt.
“I’ve had various fusion-types of bands, or whatever you call it, even back in the ’70s. Lately, things have migrated back to those same sounds. In 1997, I played with Medeski, Martin & Wood and they really got me excited about playing a kind of fusion-jazz again, although a different form than what we were playing in the ’80s [his time period with Davis]. They also introduced me to a whole new audience that’s out there—known I guess as a jam-band audience—college-aged kids that aren’t necessarily jazz aficionados. My band has since been going in that direction.”
If ticket and record sales are any indication, that heading seems to be a first-rate one. But possibly the best aspect of this sound is that it seems to be broadening the American markets. “I think the U.S. is getting better as far as getting into jazz, although I also think that the last couple of records I made were different, and there seems to be more of a market for that here,” says Scofield. “There has always been a really big jazz scene in Europe, as far as I can remember anyway, and all the American jazz musicians play lots of gigs over there. But this funky jam-band stuff is more popular over here.”
Another affinity in modern jazz, regardless of which side of the pond you’re on, is the reverberation of electronic modes into the sound—shall we try “electro-groove jazz?” “Hip-hop music, ambient music, electronic music and all the variations on that stuff—it’s been around us for a long time. For me, especially for the hip-hop thing, it just fits funky-jazz music so well. It’s a new thing for me, although I know it’s not particularly a new thing. In the ’80s and ’90s I lost interest in that style for a while and was perked up again by people like MMW—that is, my interest in funky-jazz, groove-jazz, instead of straight-ahead jazz. That’s why I’ve been able to get into this younger scene,” says Scofield.
As he notes, it does help playing with younger musicians. His latest lineup consists of three multi-talented players, including rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick, bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Adam Deitch. As an example of the influence younger (relative, yes) musicians can have, Bortnick is the mastermind of the electronic stimulus on the band. “He throws in all kind of samples,” says Scofield. “He has a rig where he can play his guitar and step on foot pedals to get the samples to come out simultaneously. I’ve always primarily been just a guitar player, although it is an electric one, so it’s great to have people around you who explore other areas.
“And as I mentioned before, I’ve played this funky-fusion jazz for 30 years and it seems like the scene has come around to include that type of music in this young-people market thing. You know, really, it’s like after all this time, the younger generation came to me.”