Guitarist John Scofield's new album Uberjam Deux (Decca) is a fascinating and energetic amalgam of jazz, R&B, soul and rock. Finding novel ways to merge music styles has long been a way of life for John. He was at the heart of the jazz-fusion movement in the early '80s, playing with Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Billy Cobham and others. John is intensely curious, and his musical taste is eclectic and diverse. As a result, his compositions are often a dynamic braid of concepts, unified by his signature, metallic-meowing jazz-rock guitar style.
Uberjam Deux's beat-driven hybrids range from funk (Boogie Stupid), romantic soul (Al Green Song), Jamaican rocksteady (Camelus) and a Philly soul cover (Just Don't Want to Be Lonely). The beauty of John's music is that it combines influences and always stretches the form without losing the listener. In this regard, songs on his new album emerge as steel sculptures, with pieces affixed here and there—some rotating, some swinging.
I asked John, 61, about his approach...
JazzWax: Your new album is highly eclectic with a range of intriguing beats. How does it compare with your earlier jazz-R&B albums?
John Scofield: It was so much fun to get together with these guys after 10 years. I think we all played well because of the lift of our reunion. On the previous records—Uberjam and Up All Night—the songs were either tunes I composed or tunes that came out of group jam sessions. [Photo above of Uberjam]
JW: And on the new one?
JS: On Uberjam Deux, most of the tunes are composed by Avi Bortnick (rhythm guitar and samples) and myself. When we decided to do the recording, Avi gave me free reign to take some things he'd composed and change them and add sections that I composed. I think the writing is stronger on the new CD than on the other ones. [Photo above of Avi Bortnick]
JW: Do you hunt for beats and then play them back for the band?
JS: A lot of these tunes started with grooves that Avi came up with and had demoed. The bass and drums work out parts to fit with the sampled percussion grooves. On the tunes I wrote alone, I made primitive home demos with my cheapo Zoom recorder just to give everybody an idea. I compose with the players in mind, and the band members always modify their parts to fit their own personal style.
JW: Are you on a mission to jazzify today's musical language?
JS: I like to think I'm still improving as an improviser, increasing my musical vocabulary. I continue to love the stuff I loved before I started studying modern jazz—blues, R&B and all the great stuff we heard on the radio in the ‘60's. I guess I “jazzify” stuff unconsciously because that's just what I do. I’m not on a mission, just always in a moment.
JW: How do you strike a balance—not leaning too far into R&B and holding too firm to jazz?
JS: I think it's all instinct. That's what tells me if I’ve crossed the line. I’ve seen the connections between R&B, soul and jazz since I started playing guitar. They’re all branches on the same tree. I saw in an interview that B.B. King [pictured] objected to being called a “blues” artist and preferred being called a “jazz” guitarist. That's interesting, coming from the King of the Blues, right? I continue to learn about and practice straight jazz as well as the dreaded back-beat music.
JW: Did you introduce Miles to the contemporary pop tunes featured on You're Under Arrest in 1985?
JS: Oh not at all. Miles was always very familiar with current pop stuff and checked it out on his own. I think he always had—even in the '50s and before. He actually discouraged us from listening to old music so we remained current and cutting edge.
JW: Why did he choose Human Nature and Time After Time?
JS: We recorded a bunch of pop tunes at the time, but Miles believed he could only do one take on them before he got stale. Human Nature and Time After Time were the only ones where he liked his playing, I guess. I remember he wanted to try Life Begins With You by DeBarge. He had me write up a lead sheet and he played it beautifully, but we never got around to it.
JW: You've always had a bold, distinct sound that takes listeners back to the 70s and yet propels them forward. How is the Scofield sound created?
JS: I think all guitarists get their sound through their fingers. Equipment choice matters some, too. I mostly use my trusty Ibanez AS200 guitar and a Vox AC30 amp from the ‘90s—the new ones are different. I like to bend notes and play with vibrato and expressive articulation. I think that can be missing in the orthodox jazz guitar approach.
JazzWax tracks: Uberjam features John Scofield on guitars, Avi Bortnick on rhythm guitar and samples, Andy Hess on bass, Adam Deitch and Louis Cato on drums (different tracks) and special guest John Medeski on organ, Wurlitzer and Mellotron. You'll find John Scofield's Uberjam Deux (Decca) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's John's Al Green Song...