Talks about ‘A-Go-Go’
with Mark Ruffin
In a large music library surrounded by just about every kind of music, guitarist John Scofield looks like, to quote George Clinton, a sex maniac in a whorehouse with a credit card.
Well, maybe a bit more subdued than that, but the 47 year-old musician, in a conversation that ranged from Lonnie Johnson’s 100th anniversary, to his bud’s Bill Frisell’s latest duet album, clearly was relishing a chance to talk guitar and it’s players.
The very first album he asked about was a record that Pat Metheny once called the greatest jazz guitar album ever, Wes Montgomery’s Smoking At The Half Note. Then Scofield had trouble deciding which track to hear first, but settled on Four On Six.
“When I got this record in 1967, it was just when I was getting in to jazz,” he says. ” I got this record along with a couple of other records and then have listened to it ever since. It’s really one of the high point of jazz music and jazz on the guitar especially.
“This is Wes at his peak. He had made some great records before this for Riverside and made his name as an innovative jazz guitarist. Then he had gone and made these commercial records. He made Windy, Tequila, and these had mover over to the pop area. They were not really blowing records. Then he came back and made this record on Verve. I think he had stored up some stuff, so when they went and made this record and it just all came out.”
Right now, Scofield can relate to Wes when he was having hit records. Sco, as his friends call him, latest album A Go-Go, was the sixth largest selling jazz album in the country last year. A-Go-Go is punctuated by the new Hammond B-3 organ revival groove that purists hate to admit sprang from the acid jazz movement. Scofield’s take on the sound adds what is known, “dirty guitar,” a sound he helped to pioneer.
His backing group on that album was Medeski, Martin & Wood, one of the hottest groups in America.
“I called them up and asked them would they record with me, because I heard their music,” he remembers. “I really related a lot to the rhythmic thing and just the jazz funk stuff that they were doing which is similar to what I’ve been doing. And they do it with a rather loose kind of perspective. The groove is everything.”
” MMW. They are huge. They’re like a rock band now. I mean as far a popularity. They have a whole new young audience and it’s kind of an exciting time, because there are these young people listening to this music, especially the groove kind of jazz. And they are into it, into the creativity of it and the whole thing.”
While comparing Wes Montgomery and his successes, the conversation, it seems naturally, turned to George Benson, the most commercially successful jazz guitarist of all time. When picking tunes, Scofield didn’t even consider Benson’s 70’s output on Warner Brothers and all that came afterwards. It was Benson’s early Columbia work in the 60’s with Dr. Lonnie Smith that he chose to listen to.
“George really made it as a singer,” Scofield says. ” He became a pop star, I just had a few more record sales. I think because there’s this new young audience listening to some kind of jazz, my record did better. It didn’t cross over really to the pop world. In a way, I’m glad because it’s really hard when someone becomes a big star and they can’t really play the music they want to.
“George has done well at keeping his chops up, because he can still really, really play jazz. I head him at a jam session in Nice where he went and set in with Frank Foster and he played Billie’s Bounce and he played some of the best jazz guitar I’ve ever heard and this was a couple of years ago. It’s still there, I just wish he’d do it more often.”
Scofield’s latest success is an nth of what Benson’s platinum splash was. But of what’s happened so far, he says there’s been no major change in his life and the bigger than usual royalty checks will not effect him musically. One direct result though of having a hit in the summertime was that Scofield, with Medeski, Martin & Wood did play some pretty big venues in selected American cities. And the album made Billboard Magazine’s Heat Seekers pop chart.
“I’ve never had any record that’s sold this well. I’m still grooving on that, you talk about a groove,” he laughs.
A Go-Go also represented a major change in the Scofield’s sound. After years of touring and recording with the same group, he now has a new group that just got together in January of this year. The new band features Marlon Brownden, on keyboards Will Boulware and the bassist is Matthew Garrison. Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist in the legendary John Coltrane Quartet. ( ED. NOTE- JazzUSA will talk to the Coltrane’s former pianist, McCoy Tyner next month)
“Matthew is carrying on the family tradition and he’s tearing it up,” says Scofield. “I’m very excited about this group. They’re a great young band.
“The record is still in the planning stage, but by the end of the year. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to do, but these musicians will be a part of it. It’s challenging to make record after record and have them all be different.”
While perusing the library, Scofield completely ignored the Miles Davis selections, but salivated at the new Lonnie Johnson 100th anniversary re-issues. It was Scofield’s three year association with Miles, from 1982 thourh ’85 that made him a bona fide guitar hero. While it would be nice to hear Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, Scofield was relieved to find that there was no Miles from that era with him on it except the soundtrack from the film, Siesta, which really didn’t reflect what that band was about.
“It was an honor and a pleasure to play with Miles. That gig really put me out there because people were really checking Miles out. He had come out of retirement and he was more famous than ever. So people would see you with Miles and it meant and lot. And Miles featured me nice. I got to solo. But more important than that was getting to work with my musical idol. I considered him the ultimate in jazz, and then to get to play with him. I learned so much from him.”
And while it was Miles who made him a star, Scofield was in a pretty good band before joining Miles, the short lived and underrated George Duke/Billy Cobham band.
“That band was truly my first big time gig with those guys. We had a lot of fun.”
Scofield says it was those two bands, because of the rock element, were the cornerstone into changing his sound. It took the jazz from his late teens Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino and Jim Hall and added the rock & r&b that was his true background and fused them together.
“Before I was a jazz head, I was really into blues. And when I was a kid, we had rock and r&b bands and were always trying to figure out the rhythm parts to James Brown tunes. Playing with Miles and Billy Cobham just brought more of that out.”
When asked to pick one cd from his peers, Scofield ran his buddies name like water, Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Mike Stern but he stopped at Bill Frisell, because he heard he had a new duet album with Fred Hersch. He looked, found it, and said the session couldn’t be complete without Jim Hall’s Live At Town Hall.
“Wes, Jim Hall and those guys from the older generation didn’t have those kind of sound bending devices that we do. Bill, Pat and I have all used the sonic thing that rock and roll brought.” It was a unique experience and a noble idea, but alas, Scofield’s ears was too big for the time allotted and most of the music picked laid like dormant diamonds in the sand, sparkling but not being used. The last pick belonged to the writer whose journalistic integrity might have been challenged had not the incredibly funky, soulful and aptly titled Chank from A-Go-Go been asked about, savored and enjoyed with the very witty guitar player.
“Chank is dedicated to Jimmy “Chank” Nolan who was one of James Brown’s guitar players. It’s a two-fold thing. Chank was a guitar player with James’ band, and chank is such a musical sound, it really does sound like that guitar funk thing. That’s the way it sounds.
“James Brown is the common language of jazz/rock. It’s all jazz musicians playing over a James Brown beat.”