It is a rare artist that can explore more than one kind of music with true fluency, virtuosity and sincerity. Guitarist John Scofield can, and he's proven it once again with Piety Street - a powerful collection of Gospel renditions.
Born in Ohio, 26 December 1951, and raised in Connecticut, Scofield took up the guitar at age 11, inspired by both rock and blues players. An early introduction to jazz guitar records sparked a lifelong love of jazz. Scofield attended the Berklee College of Music. In 1973, he moved into public eye with a wide variety of bandleaders and musicians including Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Billy Cobham/George Duke, Gerry Mulligan, McCoy Tyner, Jim Hall, and Gary Burton. His first recording as a leader in 1977 established him as an influential and innovative player and composer. In 1982, he began a three-and-a-half-year stint touring with Miles Davis. Scofield's compositions and guitar work appear on three of Davis' albums. Throughout his eclectic career, Scofield has punctuated his many traditional jazz offerings with funk-oriented electric music. His recordings-several already classics-include collaborations with contemporary favorites like Pat Metheny, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Bill Frisell, Gov't Mule, and Phil Lesh. (Scofield Publicity)
On Piety Street, Scofield goes back to the roots of the music that brought him to where he is today. We discussed those influences, where he is with this project and where he thinks the music is taking him and the rest of us.
Jazzreview : Tell me how you wound up with the Gospel theme.
John Scofield: You know there are a lot of twelve bar blues out there and I’m a big fan. I really wanted to make a not-so-many-notes jazz thing you know. I wanted to play simply and play some really soulful music. BB King is kind of where I started as a kid but the problem for me is that it - blues- has been done so much. I am also a fan of Gospel music. And I learned about it over the years and collected songs. And I thought, hey we can play those tunes and play it in New Orleans where those guys really know how to groove that stuff.
Jazzreview: Two of my other questions the set of songs .very eclectic mix definitely Gospel Roots music source of the blues. What particular songs did you find to be your own favorites. In the process did you fall in love with them again?
John Scofield: Well, you know, what happened was I had some of my favorite gospel tunes from years back. I’m a big Mahalia Jackson fan." We did two songs that I associate with her, "Walk With Me", and "Just A Little While To Stay Here." Another really great gospel singer is Dorothy Love Coates and we did a couple of her original tunes. I just love, "Ninety-nine and a half" and "That’s Enough." The other tunes, I picked them out over the years, tunes that I just dug.
When I decided it would be nice to make a program of Gospel tunes, I wrote some things that were really in the gospel tradition and I listened around for other stuff. I found some performances of my favorite gospel groups or artists and thought, 'how can we really make this work for me and for the singers too?' So I asked John Cleary (best known for his work with the Bonnie Raitt band) and John Boutté - a seventh generation Louisianan vocalist, a master of a range of styles from torch jazz, and soul to African-American Gospel.
Jazzreview: What sells that CD besides the great instrumental work, was the vocals...
John Scofield: Oh, John Cleary and John Boutté, man they are incredible. They inspire me to play. I feel real lucky that I got to have such great singing on the record.
Jazzreview: Did you know these cats before you did the project?
John Scofield: Yeah, well, I knew Cleary for eighteen years. I’ve been a fan of his. I haven’t really played with him much, and some of the other guys on the record, I’d never played with before.
Jazzreview: One of the things I find is the authenticity, honoring the Gospel music, but taking it to another place, taking the jazz approach by allowing room to spread out. When you got these musicians in the studio what worked? It sounds like it all clicked.
John Scofield: Yeah, I just sort of knew it would work. You know, George Porter Jr. on the bass, he’s the man down there. He’s done it all and he plays on all the great records that I am a fan of, from the 70s and before. We got Ricky Fataar on drums who I brought in. He’s not from New Orleans. I brought him in from San Francisco and he’s a great studio drummer. I mean, he knows his way around a studio.
He’s really good at that and I wanted that expertise and also he’s very comfortable in the New Orleans kind of groove and into the Gospel idea. I just got like minded people so even though some of us hadn’t played together, it worked got lucky there.
Jazzreview: We talked earlier about your equipment and your sound, but I notice in your notes you fell upon a ‘Musicman’ and took the country route with that on a tune or two. Was that an instant inspiration?
John Scofield: I don’t know if I put that in the liner notes or not. Well, this is what happened when we went down to New Orleans to record. We had to get over a few hurdles. James Faber (the engineer who came with me from New York) and I had to delay the recording by a day because they had a hurricane, Hurricane Gustav. The city closed down. I don’t know if you remember this. It was last September. The power went out in New Orleans and they evacuated the city. We flew down right after they reopened the airport and luckily everyone was able to get into the city. Unfortunately, I had the VOX amp company send me two amps to record on via FEDEX. The amps didn’t make it because of the weather. Fed Ex deliveries were late by days. George Porter, luckily, knew some guys with some amps so he had them bring over a few I borrowed a AC 30 VOX and a Matchless. I only used the Musicman, which was a part of the studio's regular equipment--for one tune, "Angel of Death." I love the vibrato sound that I got with it.
Jazzreview: The other question I wanted to ask you is where do you see this project fitting into the long list of things that you have done? Do you see yourself moving in a direction, or do you just see this as just adding more color to the palette that is Scofield?
John Scofield: I sure feel at home playing this music. I’m so excited to be going out on tour this spring and into next fall, and over the summer. I like to break it up you know. I like to mix it up, and I’m going to enjoy playing some straight-ahead jazz in the future different types of stuff.
Making this record has made me realize that these songs and this kind of New Orleans feel of the music is really important to me. You know, to keep it simple in a way. I don’t know, as far as the future, I’m not sure what’s happening, but I feel I have found something that is working now.
Jazzreview: You mentioned you’ve got a tour coming up featuring the music from the CD. Are you going to use the same line up?
John Scofield: Yeah, we got George Porter for the first half of the tour, then he’s got some other stuff. So then we got another great bassist from New Orleans, Donald Ramsay. Cleary’s going to make it on piano and vocals, and Ricky Fataar on drums.
Jazzreview: The music has a signature Scofield style, but in listening to this, you hear a lot of fun going on.
John Scofield: Man, well you know what? We did! We had a blast, [and] we kept it loose. That’s important, really important if it's not any fun, it's not worth doing.
Jazzreview: Well, that feeling comes through on the disc. You can’t sit still when you listen to it. Do you think they will feel it when you’re live?
John Scofield: "I hope they get up".. . we've already toured it once in Europe last November and got great responses.
Jazzreview: Looking at your beginnings, evolution and the role influences have had on you, academic study versus practical learning and development, where you sit, do you see that we are getting it out there to the next generation?
John Scofield: You know I think it always changes. . .jazz has become academic. Sometimes that doesn’t feel right to me. On one hand if Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Stravinsky live in an academic setting why not Jazz music? You know, because it is heavy, it maybe deserves to be enshrined in academia.
But I know you’re probably like me, I bet you're like me, coming from a place where it was a little more spiritual than intellectual learning. I think if it doesn’t have a feeling, then it's not going to communicate to people. What spoke to me a long time ago was the emotional aspects in the music of the artists I admire - it was intellectual, but not academic.
With that being said, when you look across all the great musicians alive and past, to me it’s getting out to play that makes the difference.
You know I’ve been lucky and I’ve gotten to play with these greats and that is where I’ve learned. I learned in school too, ..I went to Berklee. But without the chance to play with master musicians, I wouldn’t know as well what to do. Those are the people who taught me night after night. The cool thing is now that I am older. I have gigs of my own and I play with some young musicians. So you know what, it passes through us. You have what you have and you pass it to the people you play with. That’s the great thing about having it be a live working unit that actually performs for people rather than a band that rehearses and records and doesn’t play much.
Jazzreview: With respect to the next generation of young players out there, have you got any names that we should be looking out for?
John Scofield: There’re more good young players, partially because of the jazz in college thing. There are some really great young players out there. There’s a younger cat that I particularly like, a guitar player I really dig. He’s from Australia. He never gets to the states. His name is James Muller.
But, there are so many good musicians, so many good guitar players. In the blues idiom, there’s Derek Trucks, in jazz, [there's] Kurt Rosenwinkel Lionel Loueke and Peter Bernstein, really some great, great musicians out there.
Jazzreview: There’s lots of talk about having venues to play in. Have you run across the venues that are active hot spot where the jazz is happening?
John Scofield: Anywhere there is an audience is an active hot spot. You know what I mean? There is a jazz/creative music audience in America and we have seen that time after time. We don’t have the funding that the Europeans countries have that help the venues out and allow them to keep the ticket prices down so they can still pay for the band and keep going. In America, you’re on your own if you have a venue, generally.
There are great music fans all over the place. The jam band genre has been great to me . . . MSM&W(Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood). That’s a whole audience that is looking for music with more meaning and depth than your normal MTV stuff...and the jazz thing man, with people that really love it. They keep going to clubs, keep going to hear live music. Live music is not hurting contrary to the idea that the music business is in trouble. It is the CD business that suffers in part as a result of technological changes, but live music is alive and well, and audiences are keeping up with it.
Jazzreview: Thank you, John. I look forward to catching you and the others on this tour.
John Scofield has proven once again he is a musician for all times. He has taken the great music of the past, gospel blues, and has brought it to his audience with new interpretations and an authentic respect for the genre. Piety Street has a premium list of musicians who got together in the city of New Orleans to conjure up the spirit of gospel blues, and threw in that jazz feel and let the cookin' do its thing. Scofield has given us music that is rooted in the past, made relevent in the present and provides an inspiration for the musicians of the future. Passing it on is what jazz is all about, passing it on is what Scofield has done here.