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John Scofield boldly goes where no album in his long, diverse discography has gone before: solo.
Over the course of a nearly five-decade career, there’s little left that John Scofield hasn’t done. His leader discography is extensive and wide-ranging, veering from swinging straightahead jazz to slick, synth-laden fusion to raucous funk and trippy psychedelia, all while absorbing influences from vintage country and classic rock.
Recording with icons? Check. The daunting list of mentors and peers includes Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Gary Burton, Joe Henderson, and of course, Miles Davis, with whom he played for three years; as well as frequent collaborators like Joe Lovano, Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny, many of whom have risen to legendary status alongside the venerated guitarist.
Then there are his ventures into realms outside the jazz sphere, including his embrace of and by the jam band world, leading to collaborations with the likes of Medeski Martin & Wood, Phish, Gov’t Mule and Grateful Dead co-founder Phil Lesh.
One of the few things that Sco hadn’t done prior to his 70th birthday (last December) and his new self-titled release on ECM is release a solo album. Asked why, he bursts out with a surprising excuse.
“Because solo guitar is impossible!” Scofield exclaims, lurching forward at the dining room table of his cozy, secluded home in Katonah, New York. “It can’t be done.”
The evidence offered by his new namesake recording, John Scofield, proves otherwise. The album features a typically eclectic baker’s dozen of songs: lyrical renderings of jazz standards and an introspective exploration of a Keith Jarrett piece, a twang-laden country tune and a rockabilly rave-up, a pair of classics from the folk and blues traditions and several originals both newly minted and revisited. All without a single other person in the room.
But back at the circular table, with beloved dachshund Gunnar snoring gutturally in a corner of the room, it doesn’t take much argument to refute Scofield’s denials. Before he takes another breath, he’s already contradicting himself in self-deprecating fashion.
“That is absolutely not true. I take it back. For me, it can’t be done. Andrés Segovia I’m not. I love a lot of solo jazz guitar players, like Ted Greene and Ralph Towner. I’ve heard Jim Hall play some nice solo guitar. But for me, it always ends up being a beautiful, rubato thing. That’s just a different idiom. To really cook, to play rhythmic jazz and then to blow over it like there’s a band — you can do that on the piano. But when it’s just a guitar, it might as well be a solo trombone concert.”
Scofield’s solution was not to go it wholly alone, but to pair up with the one player he knows better than any other: himself. Via the use of the Boomerang pedal that he’s been toying with for more than a decade and a half, though rarely in public, he crafted loops that allowed him to accompany himself for the session.
“Nobody comps for me like I do,” he says, followed by the wry chuckle that quickly becomes a familiar component of any conversation with the avuncular guitarist. “I’m joking, but when you’ve got your own breathing behind you, it’s very familiar. I played some solo guitar gigs years and years ago in Europe, and it was terrifying to be up there alone. With the looper, I wasn’t terrified anymore. So it’s easy now.”
The comfort level on John Scofield was ramped up by the fact that it was recorded at home, at the guitarist’s leisure. The album was engineered by Sco’s former student Tyler McDiarmid, now a musician and in-demand producer whose regular gig is as a lead sound technician for Saturday Night Live, who also engineered Scofield’s last ECM release, Swallow Tales. But McDiarmid never even had to visit Katonah, let alone oversee the sessions.
“At first we were going to mic up an amp,” McDiarmid explains, “but then Sco discovered the Universal Audio OX Box. It’s an interface that emulates a guitar amp, and you can basically pick the amp you want and control it with an iPad. He used a Fender Deluxe Reverb sound and just used two channels through this box; he routed one to his looper pedal and then the other was his live sound, and he recorded it in GarageBand. My job was just to balance those two elements.”
No matter the setting, Scofield showcases the relaxed virtuosity and exhilarating imagination that he brings to every song he plays, that instantly recognizable voice that leads every conversation about the guitarist to inevitably include the phrase, “Sco always sounds like Sco.” McDiarmid echoes that sentiment, pointing to the warm, resonant sound on the album.
“There’s no real amp sound on the record,” he says. “Sco would be the first one to tell you that he’s not super tech savvy, but he did it all himself. He could play through a tin can and it would still sound like him.”
The Boomerang looper doesn’t allow tracks to be stored, meaning that with every new performance Scofield has to recreate his accompaniment from scratch, leading to a more natural, in-the-moment feel. “I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “I don’t want to be like the busker who’s got ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on 12 different tracks and then they play or they sing over this huge thing they’ve built. That is what I’m doing, in fact, but I try to mask it in certain ways. I’ve come up with some techniques so it’s not so obvious that I’m just laying it down and playing over it.”
The wistful way he plays the melody of his own “Honest I Do,” originally recorded on 1992’s Grace Under Pressure, thus spurs a tremulous, delicate balladry that seems to probe gingerly around the lyrical tune. He draws “Mrs. Scofield’s Waltz,” dedicated to his wife Susan, from the 2001 album Works for Me, on which he was accompanied by Brad Mehldau’s sensitive piano. The dance here floats gracefully, allowing his filigreed lines to hang suspended in the air.
Scofield lays down cloud-like chords for the album’s opener, Keith Jarrett’s “Coral,” which he learned from Gary Burton while still at Berklee. He’d previously recorded the ballad in a trio with Dennis Irwin and Ralph Peterson for the 2000 Jarrett tribute album As Long As You’re Living Yours (a fact which had slipped his mind). Unlike that version, here he holds off on playing the melody until the end of the piece, as if his solo was a way of gathering his thoughts before making a final, succinct statement.
Several of the pieces on the album have similarly personal connections for Scofield. “Junco Partner,” an oft-recorded blues number that he plays with a spare, grungy drawl, is a song that he’d played live with Dr. John, while “My Old Flame” was a part of the repertoire when he’d play in a duo with Charlie Haden, though here it’s done completely solo, without even the looper in the mix. Scofield witnessed Chet Baker sing “There Will Never Be Another You” live during the concert that became Sco’s recorded debut, 1974’s Carnegie Hall Concert with Gerry Mulligan, and many times thereafter, though Sco’s version is considerably more up-tempo and jaunty. Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” which he lends a knife-edged ferocity, is one that he’s played many times with Lesh.
None of that, Scofield insists, really entered his mind while he played these songs for the album. “The songs are just songs,” he says with a shrug. “I love all those musicians, but I don’t necessarily think about them — I probably try not to think about them. I wouldn’t do any songs that were made famous by guitar players, for instance. I’m trying to take [these tunes] and do something to make them stand out a little bit. I mean, ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ has been recorded 8,000-million-zillion times and everybody knows it, but that’s OK because music has roots. We’re just taking those roots and then going somewhere else. Hopefully in a moment it can be something that’s alive outside of the Harry Warren songbook.”
That notion echoed one he’d made during an earlier interview we’d done in Manhattan, around the release of his 2015 reunion with Joe Lovano, Past Present. “Any good music has roots,” he said then. “We as musicians have a vocabulary that comes from old music and we just put it together. It comes out a little differently because we’re individuals, but the idea of something being old and new is interesting to me. A lot of the shared music of jazz is really old. We’re playing these songs today, but everybody’s playing has echoes from the past in it.”
The idea of being simultaneously old and new may have some special resonance for Scofield given the frequency with which he jokes about or simply references his age. The quartet that he recorded with in 2018, featuring keyboardist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart, was christened Combo 66 after his age at the time; two years earlier, he’d recorded an album of country tunes called Country for Old Men, a play on the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers film. The new album includes a new tune, “Elder Dance,” about which he writes in the liners, “I picture older people (like me) doing a kind of Lindy Hop.” Even his Instagram handle is @OldManSco.
“I guess I do joke about it a lot,” he muses when these examples were laid out in front of him. “I’m just desperately trying to be funny, but I feel great. I never worry about getting older because when I started playing jazz my idols were all these old guys. A lot of the guys that I had records by were dead, and that’s really old. But I remember buying one of my first jazz records, Art Farmer Live at the Half-Note, and it had this picture of Jim Hall on the cover. He was probably 40 at the time, but I was 14 and he looked like he could have been the English teacher at my junior high school. So if these are the guys that I admire, and they look like old guys, then being old must not be so bad.”
In a sense, the music selected for John Scofield could be viewed as representing the spectrum of genres and styles that he’s explored over the decades, but that’s hardly uncommon for Scofield — and nothing new, either. “I was a kid who got a guitar in 1963, and at the time there was interesting guitar playing in country music, interesting guitar playing in rock and roll, interesting guitar playing in blues,” he says. “I think part of being a guitar player was being into a lot of different stuff.”
Scofield allows that it’s become easier and easier to discover new worlds of music with modern technology and streaming services, but he says that he wasn’t exactly sheltered from eclectic genres in his formative years either. The airwaves were much less narrowly defined in that era, for one thing.
“That was a period when popular AM radio was really diverse,” he notes. “I fell in love with the blues explosion of the ’60s, starting with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but also the white bands with Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton. Folk music was very popular, and I would go to the Newport Folk Festival as a teenager. Then country music had come into popular music via The Beatles, so I would listen to bands like Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. I liked old Appalachian singing and bluegrass. I was never going to be a bluegrass guitarist, but I would listen to country singers like Hank Williams and George Jones and be deeply moved. All that music had an artistic air to it, so I’ve never felt guilty about liking any of it.”
That was one benefit of going it alone for the new album, he continues. “I found that I was able to do all different kinds of music, which I’m not always able to do with a group. Some guys won’t be into Hank Williams if they’re great jazz players, or if a guy’s way into Hank Williams, they might not be able to swing. I found it fun to just try something as you feel it, and if it’s not working, goodbye. I’m on to the next thing.”
He’s had less difficulty in finding collaborators who can bridge one style to the next in recent years. Vicente Archer, for example, recently migrated from Combo 66 to Scofield’s latest band, Yankee Go Home, alongside pianist Jon Cowherd and drummer Josh Dion. The original idea for the quartet was to play jazz versions of rock songs by songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Their brief has expanded as they’ve toured, though, incorporating newly penned Sco tunes that lean on backbeats rather than swing.
"I can hear John’s lineage when I hear him play,” Archer says. “There aren’t many guitarists where you can hear one note and know who it is. His sound is so strong and his ideas are so clear. I love so many different styles of music, and I feel like I can be myself with John. It’s been a joy playing with him.”
“Some people think if you play a certain style you have to change your approach,” Cowherd adds, “but John’s always got a distinctive sound. We can play things from different bands or different eras and he always sounds incredible. It’s always his sound. What a force on the guitar.”
Scofield plans to take Yankee Go Home into the studio in August, and most of his touring plans for the foreseeable future involve the quartet or a trio with Archer and Stewart rather than solo dates. While he enjoyed the experience of finally making an album on his own, it wasn’t exactly his first choice.
“I’m not sure if I would have ever thought about a solo record, but then the pandemic left all of us at home alone,” he explains. “That’s when I bought some gear and started to record myself and thought, OK, this could work.”
While he half-heartedly laments being removed from the New York City jazz scene, the home that Sco and Susan have shared for 30 years proved an idyllic haven during the coronavirus years. “I love my home, and the pandemic was fine for me,” he says. “I hate to say that, because it was just tragedy for the world. I feel awful for the younger musicians that were just getting started and had to take two years off. Or some of the older guys. We missed a couple of years of Barry Harris [who passed away from complications of COVID at 91 in December 2021]. We need all the Barry Harris we could have gotten.”
Most jazz fans would express similar sentiments about Scofield. But “old man” jokes aside, he shows little sign of slowing down from his relentless touring schedule, and juggles multiple projects at a time. When we spoke in early April, he was preparing to set off for the West Coast, beginning with a four-night run at the SFJAZZ Center that included a solo concert, a duo with Dave Holland, and evenings with both Combo 66 and Yankee Go Home.
Even with all of that on the horizon, and all of the music Scofield has heard, played and experimented with over the years, he leaps at the chance to ruminate on the unheard, an inexhaustible curiosity twinkling in the corner of his eye.
“There’s so much music out there, man,” he marvels. “We tend to think about recorded music, which is what we know. But what about all the stuff that was hanging around for the millions of years before that? I bet it was pretty good.” - Shaun Brady
Featured photos of John Scofield by Nick Suttle.