John Scofield and the one great, big guitar

John Scofield’s list of accomplishments is long, and his list of credits is enormous.

Needless to say, Scofield has been one of the leading voices in jazz and beyond since the mid-1970s. Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, Gary Burton, Miles Davis… Scofield has lent his unmistakable tone to an incredible amount of music. That includes his own, having made more than 40 records with Blue Note, Verve, Impulse and more.

Now, the 68-year-old Scofield is set to release a new album with ECM called Swallow Taleswhich celebrates the music of his friend and mentor Steve Swallow. The nine tunes are a mix of Swallow compositions that have become standards alongside some lesser-known works.

Scofiend joined us for a conversation about that long-time collaboration, how the new album came together, and how he’s been coping with not being on the road.

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How have you been doing? What’s been going on with you these past few months?

Nothing’s been going on! My wife and I have been staying home and sheltering in place.

Can you remember this long of a period where you haven’t been on the road?

Not since the ’70s. I’m on the road a lot. I’ve been really lucky that I’ve been able to work that much and stay out there. So, I’m really at home, and on one hand I love it, but I also realize that when I’m not playing, I’m always preparing for the next thing — but now I’m not sure when the next thing is.

Does that leave an uncertainty that’s professional or musical? Does your artistry need that outlet?

More artistry. I’m used to practising and working on the next project, and right now everything is on hold.

But is it nice to take a breath?

That is nice. If I never got on a plane again, I’d be fine. But I realize that I’m also a road dog. I’m used to having that impulse of going places and seeing people. I get so much of a thrill from it. I’m not ready to stop.

Well, let’s talk about Steve Swallow. You guys met at Berklee, and you were there as a student?

I was 21 or 22 … He was an established great and I was a rookie. We played together and he thought, this guy shows promise. We’ve been in touch ever since. We’ve played a zillion gigs and made a bunch of records together over the years. We’re good friends. I’ve learned so much from him. He was really a mentor in the early years.

Let’s say you’re not a musician. Can you describe what makes him so attractive to play with, musically speaking?

He’s a great bass player, and you’ve got to have a great bass player. In a guitar trio, you’ve really got to have partners who understand and who make a full sound together. When Steve and I play, he’s always so there with his part. In a way, we make one big guitar. It’s like-mindedness. It’s hard to put it into words. With me and Steve, and with Bill Stewart on drums, it just worked right from the beginning. Steve’s a great composer, too. He’s an all-around musician, and a student and observer of all kinds of music. That’s really expanded me.

Do you think it had anything to do with Steve being an electric bassist who plays with a pick? Is that something that maybe made you connect to him more?

Yeah, I think so. Steve originally was an upright bass player. He got into electric bass at the end of the ’60s, and then he decided — unlike most people, who play both — Steve just quit playing upright bass and said, “Electric bass is the instrument of the future.” This was a pre-Jaco Pastorius world. Electric bass style hadn’t been figured out. Steve has a different way of playing than everybody else, playing with a pick — it’s very guitaristic.

It came with some blow-back at the time, when he decided to put that stake in the ground. 

People wanted him on upright. He gave his upright bass away and said he’d never play it again. He felt he needed to devote himself to electric in order to really learn it. He said he got a call from Thelonious Monk to join his band, and then Keith Jarrett asked him to join. He said, “Yeah, great! Except I only play electric.” And they said well, okay, maybe not. That’s sticking to your guns.

You mention that Steve’s compositions are the perfect vehicles for improvisation. Why is that?

They’re interesting chord changes to blow over. But they’re not too interesting. Some people who write jazz compositions write the most far-out stuff they can think of and they’re trying to be cutting-edge, and then it ends up that you can’t solo on them. That’s not the case at all with Steve’s tunes. They all make perfect sense. They’re rooted in tradition as well as having interesting, unique movement that makes it different. He uses different kinds of rhythmic phrases. It’s not the normal, four-bar phrases all the time. He’ll throw in some other stuff. But it all makes sense.

You did the recording in one day. What kind of high-wire act is that? Or is it so comfortable that it’s not like that at all?

We did it differently than a lot of recording sessions. It’s pretty old-school. We didn’t listen to the playbacks and analyze them because we knew the songs. Even though these are songs that aren’t on my records, I’ve been playing some of these songs in concerts and sound checks with Steve and Bill for years. A lot of them I’ve known since the ’70s. I learned to play jazz trying to get through the changes in these tunes. So, it just happened quickly. We played each one a couple times. We knew the engineer and we knew he’d get a really good sound. We just kept playing, and it was done in four or five hours.

You mention that more than just a drummer, you consider Bill to be another melodic voice in that band. Tell us a little bit about that voice you love having in your trio.

He’s certainly more than a timekeeper. He plays piano, he knows all the different parts in music. He’s super talented melodically. On the drums, it’s almost as if there’s another melodic instrument that’s playing with you. He provides this other part while playing the shit out of the groove — swinging as all get out.

Were there plans for the three of you to go out and do some shows around this album?

We were supposed to be in Europe right now. We have a bunch of stuff that we weren’t able to do that’s been rescheduled to next year.

There’s a documentary being made called Inside Scofield. Can you tell me about that?

It’s a German filmmaker Joerg Steineck who approached me two years ago and said he wanted to make a movie about me. I thought wow, really? Sure, why not. I was really flattered. He was very sincere, and he came on the road with us with his camera, came on a bunch of tours in Europe and in America, and he came to my house, filmed me at a recording session — all kinds of stuff. He has all this footage and he’s putting together a movie. We’ll see what he does! Right now, he’s trying to raise money, so you can go to his [Kickstarter] page.