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Interview by David Ryshpan.
Guitarist John Scofield was performing with his trio of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Bill Stewart at L’Astral, Feb. 12-13 and on a Québec tour from Feb. 6th to the 17th, part of the Festival de Jazz en tournée. Here’s the conversation David Ryshpan had with the man on the guitar.
DR: You’ll be playing some smaller cities and towns on this tour. You just played in Gatineau – can you talk about the reaction of the crowd there?
JS: I was surprised that they were such a great audience, that they seemed really with the music, and very knowledgeable. It was a fantastic evening for us.
DR: Have you done a lot of tours where you hit smaller towns?
JS: Occasionally, we call it “missionary work.” [laughs] We’ll go out to places that really don’t have much jazz. And the people that come, that are interested, there are jazz fans and they’re just so excited that you’re coming to their town. Sometimes people are just curious, they aren’t knowledgeable about the music, but usually they like it too. I really enjoy playing for people where they don’t get so much music in their town.
DR: On this tour you’re joined by Bill Stewart on drums, with whom you have a long playing history, and Scott Colley on bass –
JS: I consider these guys – actually, I can’t think of any better guys to play with. I think they’re the best in the world. I gotta say, I think Bill Stewart’s as good as any drummer’s ever been in jazz, and the same thing for Scott Colley on bass. And I know that’s kind of a big statement but I really believe it. These guys are just the best, and we work well as a trio which is nice. But their contribution is so important and when you have a trio, everybody’s part is very important. You really hear what everybody’s doing and how it blends together to make one thing.
DR: In a lot of your music you have a very specific hookup with drums, and you’ve played with a lot of great drummers.
JS: I love rhythm, you know. And so I became – I had to really learn how to play music; this is not natural for me. So I studied rhythm, and then I became a fan of drummers after trying to get it in myself. I think it’s maybe the most important element in the music, in a way. I love great drummers and I’ve gotten to play with a lot of the greats, and it’s really important to make the music feel good, to have a great drummer. When you don’t have a really good drummer, the music just sort of sits there but it comes alive when that drummer is spurring you along.
DR: I think a lot of people in my generation discovered you from your albums on Verve, especially A Go Go with Medeski Martin & Wood. In the past 15-20 years you seem to have alternated from very electric records like Uberjam and the more acoustic or straight-ahead records. What does that juxtaposition do for your trio playing?
JS: Well, I have been lucky, I’ve been able to explore different avenues in the music and have projects and make records that are different from each one, and I always come back to playing trio. I think each of these other projects – Piety Street, Uberjam – they actually inform me. I get more ideas from those that I bring back to straight-ahead jazz. With the trio, we don’t just play straight-ahead, we kind of rock out, we play some free stuff, even country & western once in a while. I think that doing all these projects has just made me a better musician.
DR: And in doing those projects like Piety Street or the Ray Charles record [That’s What I Say, 2005], does that focus your creativity for a record? Is that something you look for?
JS: I like for a project or album to have a focus or central theme, like a book or a movie. In jazz, we’re lucky, we get to make a lot of CDs. None of them sell that much but if you make 40 CDs and they all sell 10,000 [copies], then you have one gold record. [laughs] When you have a long career then you don’t want to just make CDs or records that are a mish-mash, each one having everything you can do. If they have focus it’s more rewarding, for the listener and to me, to try and keep it in one area. Like I did the music of Ray Charles, which is kind of an R&B thing but it stretches out to different stuff. Piety Street was all gospel tunes, also kind of R&B. Uberjam was groove-funk-electro-jazz.
DR: And there’s a new Uberjam record coming out in May? Is it the same lineup?
JS: Uberjam Deux. Yes, it’s the same lineup – Avi Bortnick on guitar, Andy Hess who played bass on our second record, Up All Night, and Adam Deitch on drums. And also another great drummer on some of the tracks, Louis Cato.
DR: With these projects like Uberjam and your collaborations with Medeski Martin & Wood, you crossed over into the “jamband” scene. You spoke of “missionary work” before – do you find that kind of outreach to be important?
JS: I never crossed over into genres for any other reason than it felt like that’s the kind of music I can relate to and want to play. Although it’s really fun getting to play for people that are not jazz aficionados but are just kind of into the music. I think any – there’s so much great music out there and any time music fans get exposed to a little different angle and learn more about it, is great. This happens to me too, when I learn more about Middle Eastern music or African music or Indian music. There’s all this stuff out there and that’s one of the nice things about living in the information age, we can all go on YouTube and watch all this stuff. If somebody says “check this guy out,” it’s there. Through my record A Go Go and playing with Medeski Martin & Wood I got into this jamband world a little bit, and I love it. That scene is great because it covers a whole bunch of different kinds of music that they call jamband.
DR: Are you actively searching for things on YouTube?
JS: I spend way too much time jumping from one thing to another on YouTube. I’ve learned a lot about music from stuff people post.
DR: You’re teaching at NYU as well?
JS: I have a great deal at NYU because I go in 7 times a semester, just 7 days, and do a workshop thing there. They’ve let me do it because I tour so much I don’t have time to teach. I don’t do any private teaching because I don’t have time. But a little teaching I really like doing and meeting with young folks [laughs].
DR: Do you find with YouTube and all the technology we have, has that changed how students respond to how you teach, or it gives them a different knowledge base?
JS: I think it’s easy to access. If you’re a jazz guitarist but you’re younger, like I was in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you can just get to it so much faster and I think that makes the learning curve go quicker. There’s more really good young players than there were before.
I also want to say that this is a great opportunity for us to learn more about Quebec, and it’s because of the Montreal Jazz Festival doing this tour. I wish this would happen in America, I don’t get to do tours of different parts of America. So we get to come to all these cool little towns and I think it’s admirable this kind of thing can be organized in Quebec. We, in the United States, should see this as a model for spreading the arts.
Interview by David Ryshpan