Interview | John Scofield, Jazz, Country & The Shared Language Of Music

By: Ryan Mannix

A conversation with John Scofield can lead to so many places.  We started chatting about Country For Old Men, the beautifully named (and beautiful sounding) latest release from the guitarist, whose erstwhile jazz chops get a chance to pay homage to Country & Western greats via the tunes of legends from Hank Williams to James Taylor.

But just as the album uses these great songs as a basis to jump off, our conversation covered all sorts of topics -- from his gear, experiences in the rock realm and even touching briefly on the chain of infuences that create a "shared language of music." 

Scofield and his Country band play at Evanston's SPACE for two shows on Wednesday, October 5th, although one of his bandmates will require an "fill-in" that night (read on... you probably won't be disappointed).

What made you want to do something country-related at this point in your career?

I always thought it would be great to try and blend that with jazz. We’re not playing straight country music, per se, at all. We make jazz out of it, and I knew that we could do that. I love the songs.

What are you drawing from with this material?

Some of it is actually traditional folk songs. Most are the classic 50’s, 60’s country music hits -- one’s a Hank Williams tune, one’s a Merle Haggard tune, a couple George jones tunes. There's a Dolly Parton tune. Most of these were songs I knew already.

What excites you about this band?

Well, these guys are, I think, some of the greatest musicians in the world, and it’s nice that we get to come play at SPACE in Evanston and present these guys. I’ve played with them for many years.

Steve Swallow on bass, who was my original mentor when I met him as a college student in 1973. Bill Stewart on drums, and the great Larry Goldings. I think the thing is that they are all jazz musicians, but they are sympathetic to country music, and wanted to do this project. I mean, some jazz guys would say, “I hate country music." It’s like a whole other world, where some people might make a political connection, but these guys actually really like it.

You can be the same creative musician, but work within these forms and idioms.

Yeah. Somebody told me years ago, “you can swing anything”. So any of these old songs, that are kind of just basic, you can turn them into jazz more easily then say a Kanye West tune (laughs)... but you could do that as well.

Were you influenced by any country guitarists, like say Bill Frisell or Danny Gatton?

No, I mean I love those guys, but my playing was more influenced by the vocals. I love the vocal lines, and tried to do that on guitar. I’m not at all a picker, I’m more of a jazz/blues player.

I’d describe your playing as angular, melodic, and kind of sharp and edgy, and it’s definitely different than the mellow tones of a lot of jazz players. How and why did you develop this method?

Well, I wanted to use sounds that are sometimes associated with rock and blues in the jazz idiom, I mean I never set out to sound sharp and edgy -- I try to make beautiful sounds. I try to play more like a horn player. I've listened to all the great great horn and sax players like Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

What first attracted you to improvisational music?

Well as a kid, I first started playing rock, and there was a guitar solo in every tune, and they were improvising, and then I liked the blues, and heard BB King and he was improvising. I knew about it, and the more serious I got about it, it led me in the jazz direction. Jazz is the big father of improvisation. But the idea goes into all other kinds of music.

Do you listen to pop music at all?

Yeah, I don’t listen every day, but when something catches my ear, I like to check it out.

Does anybody out there right now impress you?

No, not really.  And that’s not a blanket statement about the genre, I’m just ignorant. I’m just usually studying the music that I‘m playing at that time.

But i bet if I thought about it for a real long time, I could tell you some contemporary music. I don’t know, The Black Keys, Derek Trucks. I don’t study it as much.

When you say you’re usually studying, for this record, were you just listening to country for months before?

Yeah, that’s the great thing about YouTube.  And my friends told me, Larry Goldings told me the stuff he likes. And that’s the great thing about the modern era, you can just go online and check it out.

I saw you play a few years back at Lockn with Phil Lesh and friends, does your approach change at all when you play in the Grateful Dead world?

I first met Phil, gosh, in the 90s, and Warren Haynes recommended me as someone that he might like. Then the first time we went out to California, and rehearsed for a few days and he was checking me out, and I didn’t really know anything about the Dead, I mean, I knew who they were but I didn’t really know the songs or listen to the music much.

So over the last fifteen years, every year Phil will call me for some gigs, because now Phil and Friends is a rotating cast, and a few months ago I went out and played with him and Chris Robinson, and you know, we always play Dead tunes.

So I’ve learned the book, so to speak. But honestly, at first, I didn’t think it was my thing, but now I really love some of the songs, and have a great respect for their body of work, and Jerry Garcia wrote those great tunes.

It can almost relate to what you’re doing now...

Absolutely, they were really into country.

....but also trying to push it and take it new directions!

Oh yeah, they were really great improvisers, and that’s what Phil Lesh is today, and that’s why he wants to play with people like me.

I’ve never played with a rock star, who in the middle of a song, suggest that it goes completely free, where we improvise for ten minutes with no form, I think he’s one of the bravest guys I've ever met (laughs).

You have your signature Ibanez guitar, but I saw you playing a Telecaster for those shows.  Do you play that on this new record?

No, you’d think I would because it’s so associated with that music. All Ibanez. Ibanez can twang too.

How do you decide what sound to go for?

Well like when i’m playing with Phil Lesh and one of the other guitarist has a Gibson sound going on, I might want to go with the Tele for a diverse sound. I’m not sure, this record was so jazzy that I decided not to use it.

That Tele sound is amazing, but that sound works so well, especially in a loud context, It cuts through so well.

What about the Ibanez?

That’s the guitar that I play. it’s my voice. It’s what I've used really throughout my whole career. It’s this semi-acoustic sound, kind of in-between a solid body and a big fat jazz guitar. I love it.

When you were writing for this record, do you have other parts in mind?

I actually have the musicians in mind. I think about them before any parts. I arrange it with them in mind, because I know so well how they play, I know what zones we can take it in.

After playing with Miles, do you still go back and take the things you learned from him?

Oh yeah, when you get up there and you try to improvise, those greats of jazz are always there in the back of my mind. I base my style by what I learned from him, and I did that before I played with him.  But playing with him just made it stronger.

I was so in love with the way he blew, his style, and I absorbed some of that before I even met him. Now it’s just part of me. I think everybody plays like that, we play the music we love, and who we’re inspired by, and you don’t have to think of them, they’re just there.

The thing thats cool about music is, Miles got it from someone else, we’re all in this chain of life. It’s beautiful.

It’s like this collective unconscious

Yeah absolutely, we all share this language.

Who do you think is doing something new and interesting in the jazz world?

Theres a lot of music in-between, that’s not exactly jazz -- like the use of electronics and computers -- I think the stuff that incorporates that with jazz, is interesting.

That’s different from bebop. I also like some people staying in the tradition. Theres a local Chicago guy called Bobby Broom, he was a lot younger then me and he's playing in the bebop tradition and doing it really well.

Is there anything in the works for Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood?

I hope so. Wait, Medeski is going to play on that gig in Chicago! Larry, can’t make it. He’s not on the record but I play with him on and off all the time.

He and I are planning to play with the great drummer Jack Dejohnette next year for his 75th birthday.  We’re starting a special group with us three and bassist, Larry Grenadier.

What’s next for John Scofield?

Well after that... I made this record years ago called Blue Matter, with this really funky rhythm section with Dennis Chambers and Larry Granger.  We’re gonna reunite the Blue Matter band and we’re gonna play stuff we haven't played since the 80’s.

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