Concerts Preview: Jazz Icon John Scofield Stripping Down For Solo Sets
RIDGEFIELD — Multiple Grammy-winning jazz guitar icon John Scofield describes his upcoming socially distanced shows at the Ridgefield Playhouse like the musical equivalent of a tightrope walk. But instead of balancing himself with a bar - he is doing it with a single guitar.
While over the past few years, and for the first few times since he took up guitar and began seriously studying the instrument at Berklee in his late teens, Scofield told The Newtown Bee he has been doing a few solo shows and digging it.
Having grown up in neighboring Wilton, Scofield added that he is looking at his two shows on Saturday, April 24, as a homecoming of sorts. And much like showing up to play in a pal’s living room, he even pointed out he will be showing up with just one guitar, his trusty 1981 Ibanez AS-200 — his go-to axe for more than two decades.
He will also be employing a rack of effects to weave a jazzy tapestry of sound for lucky fans and proteges who score any remaining tickets to see true artistry in the making.
A three-time Grammy award-winner with another half dozen nominations and more than 40 recordings to his credit, Scofield stands as a principal innovator of modern jazz guitar.
He played alongside Miles Davis for more than three years, and 15 years later was recognized with The Miles Davis Award at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. He has also shared the stage and session spaces with — get ready for it — Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, Eddie Harris, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, Mavis Staples, Gov’t Mule, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, and Phil Lesh.
He has also played and recorded with Tony Williams, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, Terumasa Hino, the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band, and the legendary Charles Mingus, to name just a few.
Sometimes referred to as “Sco,” composer, mentor, and jazz trendsetter Scofield’s work has influenced guitar greats since the late ‘70s.
Described as a stylistic chameleon, the active adjunct professor of jazz in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University has long forged a consistent, rock-solid aesthetic identity, demonstrating fluency in bebop, blues, jazz-funk, jam band, orchestral ensembles, and various others with ease and enthusiasm.
He hinted at aiming to play a smattering of all that and more for his Ridgefield audiences during our interview, which kicked off with Scofield identifying another influential guitar great who also grew up in and has now retired to neighboring Waterbury.
The Newtown Bee: So did I get it right, you grew up in Darien?
John Scofield: No I’m a Wilton kid, but they’re a lot alike.
The Bee: Well, I’m a Waterbury boy and there’s no place like Waterbury, I guess.
Scofield: Yes, there is only one Waterbury. Say, have you heard of Joe Diorio? He’s a really great jazz guitarist who is not well known but he’s from Waterbury, too. I lost touch with this guy, but I know he eventually left Waterbury years ago and moved to Chicago. In jazz circles guys know about him because he did some great stuff. But I know he has since moved back to Connecticut. If you ever find out that he’s still kicking, let me know. I also know another jazz guy from Waterbury named Mario Pavone. I guess your home town had a few talented jazz guys.
The Bee: Speaking of talented jazz players, I guess there’s something to be said for a musician who forms a band in college and sticks with the same guys for their entire career — but that is not you.
Scofield: (laughing) No, I’ve got a million bands. But some of them almost go back to college, or at least some of the guys I’ve played with I’ve known since then.
The Bee: Let’s talk about your Ridgefield show. It’s just you — one guy with one guitar?
Scofield: Yeah, just me and my looper pedal — it allows me to be more than one person. I’ve been doing this for the past couple of years. And since [the pedal] I’m using doesn’t store loops, I’m creating new ones every show on the fly, which seems more jazz-like. I’m excited to play solo, I love doing it, and I’ve certainly honed my skills over the past year with COVID keeping me inside. Before that and for my entire career, what I’ve loved most is playing with other musicians.
The Bee: I’ve seen a number of guitars in your hands, but your website identifies your go-to as a 1981 Ibanez AS-200, and you also play Takamine acoustics, which was my first acoustic as well.
Scofield: Yes, I started playing Ibanez back in 1982. Before that I had a Gibson but it needed work. So when I went off to tour in Japan, Ibanez was working really hard to try and get American artists to play their instruments. So they approached me and gave me a guitar. So my Gibson’s neck had warped, and I didn’t know how to fix it when I was over there. So I played the Ibanez they gave me and it worked out great. It’s really a nice guitar and I’ve been playing it ever since.
The Bee: A few of the folks you have worked with are really intriguing to me. So I’d like to ask you about a few starting with Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.
Scofield: I’m trying to remember when I first met and played with Phil, but it must have been 18 years ago or more. Warren Haynes was playing with Phil and he recommended me. So when Lesh started his Phil and Friends group, which is a collective of different musicians, he would call me every couple of years to play. Sometimes it would be a tour, other times it was a recording session, or a one-off show or a summer festival.
The Bee: So I don’t imagine you were under a lot of pressure to hit it out of the park, at least at the beginning?
Scofield: It’s actually been a lotta fun and I got a lot out of it professionally because it was something out of my wheel house as a jazz artist. I did listen to the Grateful Dead back in the ’60s when I was a kid, and actually saw them when I went to a concert because of their opening act, which was the Blues Project with [Rock & Roll Hall of Famer] Al Cooper. It’s been great playing with Phil and Friends over the years, and once in awhile I’ll play the Jerry Garcia tune “Standing On The Moon.”
The Bee: One of the artists who was a great influence on Lesh and Garcia was Miles Davis, and you spent a couple of years working with him. How did that happen, did you make the first move to look him up?
Scofield: He came and found me. I was living in Manhattan. And at that time, and I think still today, that jazz world is anchored in New York City. When people are looking to hire people for their band, they get referrals from other players they know. That’s what happened. The guys in his band knew me, and they got me the gig. One day back in 1983 I got a call and it was Miles’s road manager telling me that Miles wanted me to come to Cleveland to play with him that day. So I did, and it turned into playing in his band for three years.
The Bee: And you had a project with renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell as well?
Scofield: I’ve known Bill for many years because we’re both about the same age. And we’ve been on a number of different projects together. I invited him to play on my records and we were in this group years ago called Bass Desires with a bassist named Marc Johnson. He wanted two guitars so he brought in me and Bill.
The Bee: You’ve also been a long-time pal of Pat Metheny?
Scofield: I met Pat way back after I got out of high school in Wilton. I was studying at Berklee in Boston and one of my professors pulled me aside and said I had to hear this great young kid, Pat Metheny. He wanted to get Pat to teach at Berklee. So he brought Pat in and we became friends as we were both starting out. We were both young guys trying to create our own individual styles, and we remained friends ever since. With Frisell and Metheny both — I don’t see them that often, but we remain very aware of one another and what each of us is doing because of our career paths and that we’re all guitar players.
The Bee: Shifting to a few of your projects and focusing on your albums Hudson, and Country for Old Men, how did you pick the tunes for those?
Scofield: Most of the tunes on those albums were old favorites. I started playing when I was 12, 1964, and folk was big back then. The Beatles were coming out then, and I was pretty much a rocker until I went to Berklee. Before that I was just a music maniac guitar kid — totally into all the cool music that was out there...blues, country, rock, soul, and all the different bands. So I think all the tunes on those albums were songs I loved for a long time. I mean, I went to Hunter College in New York back in ’68 to see Jimi Hendrix, and I got to see guys like Jeff Beck.
The Bee: A friend of mine who is a jazz player himself noted that your style lends itself to a kind of edgier, more treble tone — and he was wondering if you set your gear up like that so your instrument would always cut through the others in the mix?
Scofield: Maybe. I know my sound is different from the more orthodox jazz guitar sound. Part of it may be because I like rock and jazz. It’s a little twangy, some jazz purists may not like it.
The Bee: How about your live album EnRoute. When you listen back to that, are you hearing the sound you set out to make during those live sets?
Scofield: We were just playing the gig at the Blue Note, and we were doing new music because we wanted to make a CD. I think we did three nights, two sets a night and we recorded everything, then picked the tunes from there. Although I’ve had many bands, I’d played with [drummer] Bill Stewart and [veteran bassist] Steve Swallow on and off for many years. We pretty much tried to capture our live sound on that CD. But in the big picture it was just another set of gigs at the Blue Note, where I played a zillion times over the years. I think jazz is best represented in small venues, it just doesn’t do too well in an “enormo-dome” where you lose the intricacies.
The Bee: So I guess we’ll be seeing you on April 24 in Ridgefield.
Scofield: Thanks for choosing me to write about. As you know this will be my first gig in a year, and it’s a local gig, which I don’t do many of either. I’m usually on the road half the year, but mostly in Europe. The closest I ever get to here is New York City, so this is going to be like playing in the neighborhood and I’m going to know a lot of the folks there, so it will be great. So I’ll leave you with a little secret. When i was in high school, I was a bit of a screwup and I ended up having to retake a Spanish class to graduate. So they sent me to take that class at Ridgefield High School back in 1968, and it’s the same building the Ridgefield Playhouse is in now — so I’m baaaack!
The Playhouse is currently doing socially distanced, limited capacity seating. Scofield will be playing at 4 and 7:30 pm. Tickets for the John Scofield shows are $52.50 and available through the box office, 80 East Ridge in Ridgefield, online through ridgefieldplayhouse.org, or by calling 203-438-5795.
Check out John Scofield with Phil Lesh and Friends at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, on March 14, 2019:
John Scofield is featured in this undated video with jazz icon Miles Davis: