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Guitarist John Scofield discusses his new album Swallow Tales on ECM Records, which features compositions by his friend Steve Swallow (holding acoustic bass guitar, top). Drummer Bill Stewart (left) rounds out the trio. John Scofield has been a leading voice in jazz guitar since the 1970s, when, fresh out of the Berklee School of Music, he caught the attention Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, a pair of jazz legends in the midst of a career resurgence. Before that decade would end, Scofield would replace guitarist Pat Metheny in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s ensemble, and in the ’80s, he became a member of trumpeter Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric band. Through the pursuing years, Scofield continued to refine a style that mixed funk, fusion, bebop and the avant-garde.On June 5, Scofield will release Swallow Tales, his debut album as a leader for ECM Records. The album is a tribute to one of the guitarist’s heroes and friends: the electric bass legend Steve Swallow. Swallow's compositions constitute the bulk of the disc, and the bassist also lends his lithe, pick-driven playing to the record (drummer Bill Stewart rounds out the trio). JAZZIZ spoke to John ahead of the album’s release, discussing everything from his early fusion days to his fondness for country music to his methods for coping through the COVID-19 pandemic. An excerpt from that conversation follows. It has been edited for length and clarity. John, how have you been holding up during these tough times?It's crazy. I don't think I've been home this long since 1974, but it's been great to be home, actually. Despite the awful situation, I'm doing okay. But I feel bad for all the people that aren't able to play the guitar all day and walk the dog like me. The frontline workers, you know? So it’s been nice to be home, but I almost feel guilty about even saying that with so many others hurting so bad.I hear you, John. And our thoughts most definitely go out to them. But you're right, the silver lining for a lot of us in the music industry is that we get to be home. I get to be with my daughter all day. I mean, I have watched Frozen II God knows how many times, but still, it’s nice.Frozen, I know it well. My granddaughter has got that one memorized.I've also been listening a lot to your new album, which is great. It’s a tribute album, but not in the historical sense, as in a tribute to a long-gone musician whose music you admire but never played with. It’s a tribute to your friend, the bassist Steve Swallow. This is your leader debut on ECM Records. What prompted the decision to play Steve's compositions? It just seemed really natural to do it because I love the songs I played with Steve. And I’ve known him as long as I've known almost anybody, since 1972, I guess. When I met him, I was 20 and he was an old man at 31 (laughs). I'd been studying his tunes and learning them for years, so I thought, “Why not just do all Steve's music?”How did Steve react when you told him?Well, his first reaction was, “Don't do that!” (laughs) He's so humble, you know? His tunes have all been recorded by other artists over the years. But never by us. So after he agreed, I booked the studio time, we recorded it and we took it to [ECM founder and producer] Manfred Eicher, and Manfred said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”And you’ve called it an “old-school” recording session. Just a few takes, I assume?Well, we knew the music, right? We had it down. There were maybe a couple of tunes that Bill [Stewart], the drummer, hadn't played, but he's so quick. It was easy. And the studio that we used, none of us really liked the way the playback sounded in that studio. So for that reason, and also because we didn't need to, we didn't listen to playbacks. We just played a couple of takes of each tune. The whole thing was over in four hours. We had a great engineer, Tyler McDermott, who is wonderful.Steve Swallow was a real pioneer of the electric bass, one of the first to transition from playing acoustic to electric. When did he make that transition?Late ‘60s he started playing electric bass. It was a pre-Jaco world.
Why did he decide to go full electric? Because he hasn’t really done much acoustic playing since, despite having been an incredibly talented upright player.You’re right. He certainly was one of the most popular upright players in New York at the time, playing with Stan Getz and Art Farmer and Jim Hall. But he saw electric bass as the music of the future. It was the very beginning of fusion music, back when he started the electric bass in the late ‘60s with the Gary Burton Quartet. So it was the very beginning of people sort of putting rock stuff. Like everybody else with ears, he liked the Beatles and what was happening in rock and roll. So around 1970, I guess he decided to play electric bass. He thought it was the instrument of the futureAnd he gets such a gorgeous tone on that instrument. It almost sounds acoustic.He approaches the electric bass differently from anybody. How he was achieving that sound with a pick, setting things up for the direction that electric jazz bass would go – it was just incredible. He plays an electric-acoustic instrument now that it has pickups in it, so it’s really resonating, like an archtop guitar. Just beautiful.Does the fact that he plays an electric bass change the way you interact with him in a musical sense?Most electric bass players, God bless them, don't spend a whole lot of time swinging. I play with a lot of electric players that are just great in another genre. But they just don’t get standards, they don’t swing because there’s this strict divide between electric and acoustic bass. But Steve went another way. He said, I'm just going to play one instrument, because I want to concentrate on that. He won't play the upright bass. One time we had a gig recently and there was an upright bass backstage. We're hanging in the dressing room. I finally got him to go play a blues with me. There was a guitar and it sounded great and I said, “Steve…” and he said, “Nope. Never again!” But yeah, Steve can just swing and play all his jazz stuff on the electric bass. He brought his acoustic bass playing to the electric bass and never looked back.You’ve got a great tone, too, John. Who were some of the players you grew up idolizing, in terms of tone?My first big idol was BB King. I had solid body guitar as a kid, so I was trying to play like that. And then I got into jazz and I got an archtop and started getting into some modern stuff. I loved Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery, and I still do. I like anybody with a really vocal tone, you know?
Well, it certainly shines on the new album. As do Steve’s compositions. I love what you said about those compositions in the press materials for this album: that the changes are always interesting, but not too interesting. What did you mean by that?That they don’t have the “jazz curse." That's when you love the complexity of the tune, but it's unplayable. I call that kind of stuff practice room jazz because it only sounds good in the practice room (laughs).I totally get it. Yeah, these songs are really nuanced, complex, but it does not distract from the song itself, the melody of it.They’re real songs.Right. You hear a lot of tunes written in odd meters, weird chord progressions, written almost as if the writer just wanted a puzzle to solve.To me, it's kind of immature. It’s like, you're learning about jazz, you learn about this complicated music and you want to write some interesting stuff, but there's, you know, there's something else going on in music that we love, so it's really hard to write something that's interesting and somewhat playableThere’s another trademark “sound” on this disc, and it’s the aesthetic of ECM Records, which has a lot to do with ECM’s founder and producer Manfred Eicher. The label is so famous for spacious, ambient quality. I’m curious, what were some of your favorite ECM records growing up?Well, I like all the classics, like everybody. But Gary Burton, definitely. I went to the Berklee School of Music, and in the Fall of 1971, [vibraphonist and ECM recording artist] Gary Burton came to teach there. I was lucky because the guys I roomed with were much better than me, the drummer and the bass player. And we had an apartment that had a set of vibes there, because the drummer had vibes too. So Gary befriended us. He treated us like a little rhythm section he could go jam with while he waited out the bad traffic in Boston. So he’d be jamming with us all the time. It was amazing. I could hardly play, but I got to play with Gary a lot then. And one day he brought over a test pressing of Crystal Silence, which he said was from this German label that nobody had ever heard of (laughs). Of course, it was ECM.One of your first gigs out of college was with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, wasn’t it?I got really lucky. I was living in Boston and one of the teachers there, the great Alan Dawson, a great drummer, was friends with Gerry, and would invite him over for workshops. Anyway, Gerry wanted to augment his existing quartet with vibes and guitar. So he tapped me and the late Dave Samuels, who was a really good vibraphonist. But we were kids, you know? So we got with Gery and played for six nights at a club, and then it was, “Okay kids, see you later.” And a month later I got a call from a producer in New York City that there was a concert at Carnegie Hall that Gerry wanted me to come play on with him. It was the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Reunion band, and so I dropped what I was doing, rented a car and drove down to Carnegie Hall to play with them. Bob James was the musical director, and Ron Carter was on bass, Harvey Mason on drums. It was the CTI rhythm section, now that I think of it.
You were also famously a member of Miles Davis’ group during the Star People and Decoy and You're Under Arrest recording sessions and so many other seminal fusion albums. What was it like to record with Miles? Was he as intimidating a figure as the stories suggest?Absolutely. I was playing with Dave Liebman at a club called Seventh Avenue South, and Miles came in the club. We were playing one of those gigs to like 20 people, and in comes Miles in this fur coat with an entourage with these beautiful women who look like fashion models, a couple of bodyguards, too. After the set, Dave says, “I’m going to introduce you to Miles.” And so we go over to him, and Dave says, “Here's my guitar player, John.” And all Miles said was, “Sounds good.” I said, “Oh, Miles, that's so great. Thank you so much. I'm really…” And he goes, “Shut the fuck up! (laughs)I joined his group couple of years later, I don't even know if he remembered me, but Bill Evans, the saxophonist, got me in the band, and Miles was very intimidating, but also really forthcoming with his ideas about music, and would share it with us and was really supportive of musicians that he liked.You have a number of memorable guitar-duo albums in your discography. I’m thinking specifically of I Can See Your House from Here, with Pat Metheny. This might be an impossible task, but can you describe Pat’s style on this album?
Well, I met Pat back in the Berklee days in Boston. He came up there, too. And we used to play a lot together and talk about jazz and guitar playing. We both were digging the same stuff. We liked free jazz. We liked to swing. And so when it came to the record, Pat's a great musician, and he just wants to make the group sound good. He wanted to play as well as he could, but it was never a cutting contest. What he made everybody realize was that what good music is all about the individual musicians supporting each other. Right? And that's the way we work.I assume that’s the way it worked with John Abercrombie, too. You did that phenomenal album Solar with him.John was great to me when I first came to New York. He was so nice, just the sweetest man. We used to play at his house, just the two of us. So when we made that record, we thought we could do some of the tunes like that.
You know, I think two guitars works great together. Like for me, with piano, sometimes it's like the timbers are so similar. They cancel each other out, and you can actually end up wasting the guitar. But if you're listening to it on a recording, two guitars, if it's sensitive players, works so well together.I want to talk about another recent album of yours, Country for Old Men. What is your history with the country genre?As a guitar player, as a young kid in the ‘60s, in this period of the hippies, people were into all kinds of music. You have to remember, this was the period when Coltrane was doing stuff with Ravi Shankar, you know? And country was part of that, too, bluegrass and roots music. Merle Travis, Merle Haggard — they were doing all sorts of crossover stuff, even with jazz. Country swing, that sort of thing. But you know what, there's always been a crossover in America, artistically at least. Politically, that’s something else. But we all cross over into each other’s music, from the very beginning of all this music, everybody has affected each other. Is there a particular musician who epitomizes this phenomenon for you?Ray Charles. Here was rhythm and blues music that was mixed with jazz. And then he stuck country with it. He was the original fusion artist. Anybody who likes music will love Ray Charles. That's just the way it is.
Couldn’t agree more. John, it was great talking to you. Great talk, Brian. Thank you so much.