John Scofield: What the Electric Guitar Can Do

Photo: Nicholas Suttle

Electric guitarist John Scofield, winner of multiple Grammy Awards, has a knack for staying a step ahead of musical trends. In hundreds of jazz settings, "Sco" and his signature Ibanez AS200 guitar and Fender Reverb amplifier have created a unique style and sound that have earned him a popularity beyond jazz's usual audience.

"It doesn't feel like I'm ahead of the [curve] at all," Scofield told me, from his home in upstate New York. "Maybe musicians are more attuned to what's happening than the public, just because we're so obsessed with music. But I try not to follow trends. I see that in other people—when they shouldn't be playing some kind of music, but they think it's hip, and then that doesn't work."

What has worked for Scofield, along with his blues-based, highly melodic guitar improvisations are catchy compositions played by expertly chosen bands comprising some of the best musicians on the planet.

Emerging from Miles Davis's electric bands of the mid-1980s, Scofield worked with him to create albums that arguably constitute the trumpeter's last great period: Star People (1983), Decoy (1984), and You're Under Arrest (1985) (all Columbia). Post-Miles, and with a handful of solo albums already to his credit, Scofield released Still Warm (1986, Gramavision), which revealed his sci-fi-meets-blues guitar playing and fusion arrangements. Joining the Parliament-Funkadelic rhythm section of bassist Gary Grainger and drummer Dennis Chambers with his angular, animalistic hard-bop melodies produced albums embraced by rock and jazz fans alike: Blue Matter (1986), Pick Hits: Live (1986), and Loud Jazz (1987) (all Gramavision). Then, in 1990, just as acoustic jazz was reascending, Scofield formed one of the music's hardest-swinging quartets—with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, double bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Bill Stewart—and recorded Meant to Be (Blue Note).

Through the years, Scofield's right-place, right-time magic has only grown. A Go Go (1998), with Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Überjam (2002) (both Verve), were popular on the jam-band scene. Saudades (2006, ECM), with Trio Beyond, revisited the Tony Williams Lifetime. The album 54 (2010, EmArcy) found Scofield's tunes sweetly arranged by Vince Mendoza, who conducted the Metropole Orchestra behind the guitarist. He's never stopped, having recorded 50 albums as a leader and almost 100 as a sideman.

His latest, Combo 66 (Verve), keeps the good vibrations flowing. Joined again by drummer Bill Stewart, Scofield brings pianist/organist Gerald Clayton and double bassist Vicente Archer to play his intimate tunes with clarity and pulsing swing. Scofield sounds freer than ever, and Clayton's large-scale keyboard work enables some of Sco's finest solos—in "Willa Jean," dedicated to his granddaughter, he even imitates what sounds like a crying baby seal.

"I try to play the guitar like that," Scofield said. "I see it as using what the electric guitar can do. The orthodox jazz-guitar approach doesn't include some sonic things I do in my music, when I'm bending notes and using volume swells from the electronics of the guitar—things like choking a note, and stopping it a certain way. For me, it's coming from the great blues-guitar players. But listen to Indian string music or the oud—there's all kinds of things the strings can do."

Scofield writes by improvising on guitar into his iPhone, then using the best bits to create complete compositions. "Mainly, I'm just trying to get a good piece of music," he said. "I'm just scrounging for that."

Though he spends more than half of each year on the road, Scofield finds time for listening at home, on a ramshackle system—a broken Dual turntable, Rotel CD player, McIntosh integrated amp, and ProAc bookshelf speakers see light action. On the road, an iPhone with earbuds serves.

Why aren't more musicians audiophiles?

"Because we're too busy making music," Scofield replied. "When I make a record, I hear it in the recording studio, in the mixing studio, and in the mastering studio. I don't worry about trying to re-create that at home. As musicians, we've heard really great music, and it lives inside us."

Scofield and his Combo 66 quartet will tour until end of summer 2019. He'll then do a solo-guitar tour of Europe—yet another first for Scofield, who by then will be 67.

Fearless forever?

"[Musicians] have this built-in thing when all of a sudden you're playing something that wakes you up in a certain way and it feels fresh," Scofield said. "I have the tendency to do the same thing over and over again and try to perfect it, which I see as a personality defect. But there's this other thing, where you play something that's a little different and it makes you feel like the music is somehow new—some little thing where some element is different enough to make it feel interesting and exciting emotionally. That's what I'm looking for."

Allen Fant's picture

Nice article- KM

I discovered 'Sco' back in the early 1990's. Those Blue Note discs are must own and will fast forward you to 2018.

ken mac's picture

And I concur 100%