John Scofield - playing for Miles and Miles
John Scofield didn’t get where he is today by being a mimic. In fact, had he been any good as a mimic, instead of the career path that has seen him develop into one of jazz guitar’s big three of his generation, along with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, Scofield says he’d have been “stuffed”.
“Everybody copies their heroes and lord knows I copied mine,” he says. “B.B. King, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery: I stole from all of them but somehow it came out sounding like me.”
It was this individual sound, as well as his feeling for the blues, that landed Scofield a job that still echoes through his music and is partly the reason for his return to Scotland this weekend to play a selection of music from Miles Davis’s electric period with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.
Scofield spent a chunk of the 1980s working with Davis and although he was thirty years old and had been around the jazz scene – he’d already played and recorded with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus and Gary Burton by the time he joined Davis – he still wanted to pinch himself some nights onstage.
“I was the number one Miles Davis fan in the world when I got the call,” he says. “I’d spent years listening to his trumpet solos and trying to transpose them onto the guitar and his whole concept, that thing of making super simple music that’s incredibly deep, had a huge effect on me. So to find myself welcomed into the inner circle as part of the posse that he hung out with – because that’s the way it was; he didn’t socialise much with anybody but his band – was something special.”
Two of the Davis pieces that Scofield will play with SNJO are virtually etched on his memory, What it Is, from the album Decoy, and Jean-Pierre, although as is the way with SNJO’s team of arrangers, both may well have had a make over that renders them as almost entirely new pieces of music.
“I’m really looking forward to hearing what Makoto (Ozone) has done with Jean-Pierre because that was an absolute staple of the Miles band during my time,” says Scofield. “It’s the perfect example of a very, very simple tune being made to say so much. If you listen back to Miles in the 1960s he was quoting that tune in his solos back then and then he turned it into a number, all four bars of it, and it became one of the highlights of the set. It’s like So What, which asks that question and does little more and yet it’s a classic.”
Davis’s minimalism has stayed with Scofield in the twenty-odd years since he left the late trumpeter’s employ. A guitarist who likes to work in a variety of settings, he’s altered course regularly, from the gentle, Gil Evans-like “small big band” of his Quiet album through tear-it-up jazz/funk with drummer Dennis Chambers, more straightahead jazz with saxophonist Joe Lovana, New Orleans rhythm and blues with the Medeski, Martin & Wood organ trio and on to the street-smart electro beats that fuelled his Up All Night album. All through those changes, though, his playing has remained very direct and recognisably his own.
“Jazz encourages that individuality,” he says, “and just being aware that you can develop your own voice probably plays a big part in actually doing it. People ask me how I got my own sound and I’m not sure. The thing that made me want to play guitar was the blues. When I was twelve or thirteen, going into the mid 1960s, the blues was everywhere. A lot of it was the British invasion guys. You’d hear them bending notes and it was the coolest thing, and then you’d discover that they’d learned it from B.B. King and guys like that, and you’d check them out. Then when I was sixteen I discovered that jazz was like blues, only better, and I started listening to other people, some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to get to play with.”
Having his compositions arranged for large ensembles isn’t entirely a novelty for Scofield. His previous visit to Scotland saw him playing Mark Anthony Turnage’s “Scorched” adaptations of Scofield pieces with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and one of the arrangers who has been set loose on the Scofield catalogue for the SNJO project, Mike Gibbs, produced big band arrangements of Scofield’s work in the 1990s.
“Mike Gibbs is a giant, and I don’t use that word lightly,” says Scofield. “I’ve known him since he lived in the States and, for me, he’s in the lineage of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. So I’ll be interested to hear what he’s done with Groove Elation. I always enjoy these sorts of projects anyway. I love the sound of a big band and I love being part of it. It’s a different situation to working with my own band but the approach is the same: play the music, try to fit in and don’t get in the way!”