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John Scofield Tells ‘Swallow Tales’



Jazz Guitar Today’s Bob Bakert interviews jazz guitar’s iconic master, John Scofield, about his latest project with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart.

Bob Bakert, Jazz Guitar Today editor: Much has been written about John over the years. His history is well documented. He’s played with Chet Baker, Billy Cobham, and Miles Davis, isn’t that enough? But, the list and his prodigious resume go on and on. He’s played with about every jazz luminary I can think of. His unique phrasing, tone, and use of dynamics makes him one of the most innovative players ever to grab a guitar.  

This interview is primarily about his new recording “Swallow Tales” with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart. The recording features Steve Swallow’s music the trio has played for years including tracks recorded by Bill Evans, Pat Metheny, and Jim Hall. Personally, I think this is one of the best jazz guitar records ever.  Enjoy the interview, and pick up a copy of the “Swallow Tales”.

Bob Bakert – Everyone told me what a great guy John Scofield is. They were right! John is an incredibly nice guy, humble – so we dove right in. I asked John a little bit about his start.

John: When I started out, I was just another jazz guy. I mean when I started out professionally, I had a jazz guitar and just went through a small amp. I had a Gibson 175 and a Fender Tremolux, which is pretty low wattage. And then I started playing loud, I did it because I got this gig with Billy Cobham, so I said, “Holy shit, I’ve got to play loud.” I got a big amp and ended up playing a solid body and a semi-acoustic guitar 335 kind of a thing. Anyway, I always thought maybe the kind of rock distortion thing could work. I don’t know, I never had an amp that distorted on its own that well.

I mean, I could distort when I turned my amp up all the way. It was so f&%#! loud, [laughter]. Close to a Marshall in type, volume. There’s a couple of things that happened… first, I started playing these Boogie amps, which are really loud as shit.

Then Mike Stern in about 1981 showed me the first stereo chorus pedal. He was playing through two amps and it was like, “Holy shit, I can sound like a horn.” I got addicted to that and I wanted a little edge because I thought that would make it more horn-like.

Then I started to use the ProCo Rat turned all the way down [laughter]. So that was my sound during those days. One day many years later in the ’90s, I played through a Vox AC-30 amp and it was like, “Wow, this thing kind of distorts on its own. I don’t need ProCo Rat with this amp.” And believe it or not, it took me that long to realize that I could find an amp that kind of distorted– that worked at a playing volume that wasn’t so awfully loud. Yeah, I was like they were the first thing that you could turn down enough so that it wasn’t super-distorted. Do you know what I mean?

Bob:  Yeah. And those earlier ones like the ones that you had, they actually bring pretty good money because you could change a chip. You could change a couple of things about them. 

John: Yeah. I still have one. I have one downstairs that’s broke, [laughter].

Bob:  I remember leaning into the speaker that I put my head against the speaker cabinet to listen to how cool it sounded. Of course, it was stupid as all hell [laughter] but it was one of those things.

John:  Well, we all were as Hendrix did.

Bob:  Yeah. We didn’t know.

John Scofield Tells 'Swallow Tales' #1
Check out Swallow Tales

Bob:  I talked with Steve Swallow. I also spoke with Bill Stewart about your current project. One of the things Steve reminded me of was that you are a prolific composer/writer yourself and that he was really honored that you wanted to do this project. Could you comment on how and why this project came to be? 

John: I love Swallow’s tunes. As you probably know, I’ve known Steve since I was I guess 20 or 21. I think I was 21. I can never remember exactly what that year was. He’s one of the best composers, and he had been a big brother to me. He always emphasized composition and I guess, at some point, I had written some little tune or something. I don’t know. And then he said, “Oh, you should compose.” He’s been nagging me ever since. The reason that I’ve composed probably as much as I have has been because of him, and also because if you want to have a band, you’ve got to have some music to play. So I only write on demand, you know what I mean – if I have a project.

I’ve been lucky enough to, believe it or not, this is my 44th album. I didn’t even know that until somebody told me. But if you want to have a band and make a record and tour around, which I always wanted to do, you’ve got to have material. At a certain point, with the trio we have, we were playing other music, other than my songs. And, I love Steve’s music. It’s classic music. I’ve said before that these are standards to me, in that I know them. You know how it is when you practice all the time. You practice “Body and Soul” and twelve-bar blues and you practice “All the Things You Are”. You get good at these tunes because they’re standards, and they outline harmony. You learned about music through that music when you’re a guitarist. That’s the way a bunch of these tunes are for me – the ones Steve wrote. Because I started learning them so early, that they’re standards to me, and I thought we could make a good record with Bill and Steve. What a great thing to do it with the composer on the bass.

John Scofield Tells 'Swallow Tales' with Steve Swallow
Steve Swallow and John Scofield – copyright NYU Steinhardt

Bob:  Oh, man, yeah. No, yeah, it’s funny you say that because yeah, I understand what you’re saying. When I play, once I really know the tune and form, I can really play be creative and have fun with it.

John: Yes, then you can do something with it.

Bob:  Yeah, exactly,  I hear you… these tunes are just ingrained in you. And, what was interesting in listening to it and all of that, it’s just really obvious that you guys know the material and are having fun… that’s really cool.

John:  Yeah, and that’s the whole ticket is to have fun and communicate and extemporize. That’s what this jazz tradition is now. It’s gotten so advanced. I can’t think of anything right now. I always think that when you read reviews, that most of them, not all of them,  don’t talk about the way we play together as a group, which I think is one of the subtler things.

Bob: Please expound…

John:  I think learning to play your instrument, and learning about music, and to get to learn lines and all that stuff, and blah, blah, blah, is essential. Learning to improvise which is really what we do. It’s a much less tangible thing to talk about. But at the same time, it’s really human. It’s something that we do in our lives all the time. Right now, I’m improvising. Right? And you’re improvising. We’re partially improvising because we’ve learned a language. And we’re speaking, some things that have been said before that work well. And that’s what it is when you’re improvising. So that’s another thing. Then you have to do it with the guys you’re playing with. So you have to listen real hard. When I listen to my own earlier playing, I wasn’t making room for the rest of the musicians like I should have. I didn’t know about that. That’s something that took me a long time to realize – that’s one of the things that is essential. How we play together is the shit. You know that. Of course, I could always talk the talk. But to really do it, I have to remind myself constantly because I play just by myself most of the time when I practice. In a trio like this with Bill and Steve, it’s really how it all works together. So I guess that’s one thing that people don’t write about as much. I think it’s probably hard to write about that – what improvising is. Whatever the hell…it’s is really important. It’s way beyond second nature. But there are a lot of really good guitar players.

John Scofield Tells 'Swallow Tales'

Bob: First of all, you guys know the material. And so you really are playing it and playing with it. You’re playing with the material you’re not playing the material. You’re having fun with this material. You’re having a sonic party, if you will, with this material because you know it so well that you can go where you want to. They know you so well. You know them so well. It’s such a joy to listen to…

Bob: Nobody ever talks about dynamics and that part of the weave. They’ll talk about harmony and melody, lines, etc… To me, that’s the best thing and very few people ever talk about, And your individual and collective playing is incredibly dynamic. 

John:  Well, thank you, so much. I mean, that’s a really great compliment. I think part of it is we have played so much with other musicians where the dynamics aren’t there all the time. When you’ve played with people enough, and you’re comfortable enough, then you’re able to think about the fine points. And that’s one of the fine points. I mean, you get sick of playing your fast shit. You realize you’ve got to mix it up. You’ve got to play more chords. You’ve got to play leave space as I said before. Then dynamics is another thing. Just by playing enough, you realize you have to get to that stuff. Of course, when you listen and play as long as you and I have played you’re able to listen to the great and realize that that was part of it.

John on his experiences

John: I did get to play with my idols, which was unbelievable.

Bob:  You played with Chet Baker, for Christ’s sake.

John:  I just wish I could play with him now. When I played with Chet Baker, I was so nervous and young that I couldn’t play shit. But boy, did he play and he was pretty nice considering.

Bob:  Well, I get it. I mean, the list of people that you’ve played with is incredible.

John:  I’ve been really lucky. Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. I came on the scene at a certain point, right? At our age, those guys were still around at the end of the ’70s. For whatever reason, for me living in the northeast and going up to Boston right after high school and starting to meet some of the New York guys and just wanting it more than anything, I was able to get into that scene in my early 20’s. That was also a period in the early ’70s when there was a lot of stuff going on and the old guys were looking for young guys to play with. So I got to play with Chet and Gerry (Mulligan) a little bit. I got to play with Miles and I got to play with Mingus and later on with Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock. They were the greats of jazz and they were just these middle-aged guys that were looking for young people to play with. I was there.

Yeah. A lot of it had to do with being in New York, being a guest eager to play with these guys and respectful so that I would get calls. But man, I wasn’t that good. When I played with Gerry Mulligan, I could hardly play because I was kind of late coming to it. I had gone to Berklee as a kid from the suburbs who had never played with a jazz band.

I had played with my guitar teacher from the local music shop in Connecticut and I had some jazz records, but when I went to Berklee, my first year all of a sudden there were other kids that could actually play jazz bass and jazz drums and stuff. So the kids who lived in New York, they were– imagine Tony Williams living in Boston. He was unbelievable at 13 I bet. But anyway, I was a latecomer in certain ways.


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Bob:  The thing that you do that a lot of the other guys don’t do– is that you take advantage of your phrasing. I mean, your phrasing is like a horn player. And it could be because you didn’t have anything else in your quiver to play, I don’t know. It didn’t seem that way to me, not to the listener. But when I listen to you live– and I’m not talking about when you’re going in full rock mode with the ProCo Rat (distortion pedal) turned on. I’m talking about when you’re doing more of the funk thing and all that other stuff. Your phrasing is much more horn-orientated, to me.

John:  Oh, yeah. That’s been my thing. I’m a jazz man/player first. I really am. When I was in high school, when I heard Charlie Parker – when I heard Coltrane – when I heard Miles, and as soon as I got into jazz, I went to the record store and wanted to get the most famous jazz there was, and that’s what there was. I fell in love with those guys, and I always thought, “Wow, if I could play like a horn player.” I already played guitar, right?

And I love guitar and everything, but probably would have wanted to play saxophone, and I’m glad I didn’t because I would have just been another tenor player. 

Yeah, that’s it.  I just stayed with guitar and listened to guitar players that were into that kind of playing too. But I mean, I could never flat pick. When I heard Pat Martino and George Benson… I mean, that alternate picking or whatever the hell they do, it’s so awesome, and I could never do that. I really have practiced that, I think, a lot, and I’m not real good at it. And so maybe that made me work on kind of legato phrasing – I really developed that early on which also is more hornlike.

Bob: Is there a consistent theme in your approach to how you go after music. How would you characterize your approach? 

John: Here’s my standard answer.  I believe that when you define anything and limit it. So if I was to say, “This is what I do and this is what I don’t do,” I’d be limiting myself. And I’d also be limiting anybody else who I’d try to define. We’re much more complicated than that as humans. I have a way of playing that’s just me. And on a good day, it sounds good or whatever. Then, some days, I actually am able to incorporate some of the shit I’ve been working on a little bit.

Because I couldn’t play like Pat Martino, or George Benson, or Wes Montgomery, the greats of straight-ahead jazz, I’ve incorporated other shit in there to try and sound good, which are a different setup and having the fusion experience that I’ve had dating back to being a kid in a rock band like everybody else. I mean, if I didn’t get gigs and stuff, I would’ve probably just sat there with ‘Autumn Leaves’ because it’s still what I work on today. But I don’t know…

So I guess I’m not– for all you jazz guitar players, I’m not a standard jazz guy. It’s funny though because, in quarantine here, I’ve got my 175 out. And I put really heavy strings on it just messing around.

I mean, to me, to be a standard jazz guitar player was not the end-all and the be-all– because even though I loved Kenny Burrell and– I mean, actually, I loved him a lot and Grant Green and everything. The sound of jazz guitar, I just thought it wasn’t as– I mean, what the hell do I know. But I don’t think it was as good– as Miles and Coltrane. But I thought B.B. King’s sound for what he did was just the greatest thing ever. And I don’t know. I thought maybe there was some way to utilize that language a little bit too in jazz. I mean–in theory, it should work because there’s blues in jazz. All those guys I just talked about, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery, used blues all the time and Jim Hall. Everybody does. It’s just the setup was different. I started out like you. I mean, when I was a teenager – when I first heard B.B King, it was freaking awesome. When I first heard Albert King, it was over, man [laughter]. I mean, as far as being in a room with somebody playing the guitar, that was just– I mean, the idea to play the guitar like that, it’s moving. I mean, so moving.

I think jazz means a lot of different things to a lot of people. If you take the wider view of what jazz is, you get a lot of other music. Some of these guys — you would have to just say they’re jazz guitarists, but they’re coming from a different place – like Eivind Aarset from Norway – he’s incredible! And he’s an effects master. People like that. Some people would argue Bill Frisell’s music, although he, I happen to know, has a real jazz background. The guitar has become so much more in the post-Wes Montgomery world, and it’s because of what happened with rock and roll – and rock and roll guitar. Arguably, Eddie Van Halen is a virtuoso, incredible musician. He might not swing or whatever, but who cares? I’m sure he doesn’t care (laughter). And all these people that came after that– that form of guitar playing has affected a lot of people that do love jazz. It’s a much bigger world, and we as jazz purists because everybody has a jazz purist point of view because we love that old music. But it’s also fifty years ago, and things have happened, especially on the guitar. I mean, you can’t say that’s happened on the tenor saxophone. Maybe not even on the piano.

Bob:  Here’s a thing, when Bird and all those guys– when they were playing those tunes, those tunes were five or ten years old, maybe, when they were playing some of the standards.

John:  Yeah, you mean on “How High the Moon” and stuff? They were the pop tunes of the day, yeah. I’m stuck in this conundrum about that. That harmony, Tin Pan Alley circa 1920 to 1960 with two five one diatonic chord progressions, allows you to speak this language of jazz from the earlier swing form into bebop and on. You can even go further than that on How High the Moon because of those chord progressions. Those chord progressions went out of favor when rock and roll came in. If you’re a jazz musician, you can’t play your bebop licks over Taylor Swift tunes. I mean, you wouldn’t want to hear it. And I play a lot of rock tunes.

Bob: Good point. Very good point.

John:  Yeah. I play a lot of rock tunes and try and just make them so I can use some sort of hybrid vocabulary because I really do want to extend the music since past playing ‘All the Things You Are’. Not even past it, but just something else.

Bob: I like your version of “You Don’t Know Me”.

John:  I love that song.

Bob: The Ray Charles tune. Yeah.

John:  Well that’s got two fives. You can kind of bebop that. And that works, because it’s country and you can– some of the country tunes offer a way – and I made that record ‘Country for Old Men’ – some of those tunes offer a way to use some other vocabulary other than the blues.

Bob:  What do you want to do going forward? 

John: Yeah. It’s time to retire.

Bob:  You going to do your Jimmy Hendrix tribute record?

John:  Ah, boy, that would be fun.

Bob:  [laughter] I think it would be cool.

John: I was playing with Jack DeJohnette. We did Hudson, where we played a bunch of rock tunes. Then I was telling Jack, “Look, you can swing this tune.” Jack looked at me with this funny look. He said, “Well, you can swing anything.” And I thought, “Oh, he’s right.”

But I don’t know what I’m going to do going forward. I’ve been playing solo guitar. Admittedly, it’s with a repeater and my boomerang pedal. I use that some. I’m trying to use it in a way so it’s not so much like the guy who’s busking downtown and playing Stairway to Heaven [laughter]. You know I’m trying to do something else. Actually, in quarantine, I’ve been playing actual solo guitar. So I’ve been doing solo shows and that’s been very rewarding. I feel like I’m able to touch on all kinds of music which is harder to do with some rhythm sections. Because they’re not as versatile as you would like and with good reason. But when it’s just me, I can really do a bunch of different stuff. That’s been great. I’m going to do another kind of fusion things after this whole quarantine is over. It’s called Yankee Go Home – it’s taking rock tunes and folk tunes and Americana meaning American music that we all grew up with you and I and every other old fart like us. Making some sort of jazz out of it.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to play two fives on everything but there’ll be some of that. I’m working on that and I’ve got some really good guys. Vicente Archer on bass. Tony Leone on drums who played with all these great rock bands, Phil Lesh and Friends, and with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. He’s also played jazz. He hung out in New York and played on the jazz scene too. So he’s going to be good at doing everything. And a really good bass– a piano player keyboardist, Jon Cowherd C-O-W-E-R-D. So I’ve got this band but we haven’t been able to play because I can’t see anybody. We’re supposed to go on the road next summer. And I’m looking forward to that. I’ve also been playing duos some with Dave Holland. That’s been incredible because Dave is one of the greats.

Bob: Wow. Well, that’s pretty amazing actually. I’m almost speechless. The Dave Holland thing, wow. That would be really interesting. 

John: Yeah. I asked him if we could do some stuff and he said, “yeah, I’m up for it.” Because I’ve played with Dave over the years in a few little things – and I was just so thrilled that he said yeah, let’s do something. And we thought duo, you know?

Bob: Yeah.

John: And then we played a week at the Blue Note, six nights. It worked out really well. He’s got these tunes that I’ve been trying to learn. They’re hard and they’re great. He’s playing some of my music too. But I guess my favorite would be a trio with great players like Bill and Steve. But I also really love playing with a good keyboard player in a quartet, somebody who’s kind of sympathetic to guitar and won’t take up the formal palette as a piano can do. Then I become a single line and try to be the singer. And I love doing that, which is a little harder to do in a trio. So those are my two favorite situations. ‘You Don’t Know Me’. ‘You Don’t Know Me’ is pretty funny because– can I tell you a story about this?

Bob: Sure. Of course.

John: This is a tribute to Ray Charles’s concert at the Berklee School of Music.  So we do You Don’t Know Me with, I think, it’s with a big band. No, no. It was just a quartet. But we’d never played this in our repertoire. We just played it one time at that big concert. It was the only song we played. So we get up there. We’re going to play it in E flat. We rehearsed it for soundcheck. And we said, “Okay. For the last 16, we’re going to go up a half step to E. Now, we get to the gig. And we start playing. It’s going really well. It’s Mike on the piano. Those two are on drums as well. It’s a great band and so we’re playing. It’s like, “Aw, shit. This is going well.” We’re doing pretty good – what a beautiful song. I’m up there playing it and shit. Everybody is sounding good. Then we’re taking it out and it’s still good and I’m going, “Oh. You don’t know me.” The bridge, it’s on B flat 7. It’s supposed to go to a B7. I completely forget that we’re going to modulate for the last eight bars. I completely space. So I stay in E flat. Sallow goes to E, right? Now, if you go to E when you’re in E flat, who sounds wrong? The melody if you’re doing E flat. I sounded right.

Bob: Yeah. You left him out on a limb.

John: It’s completely wrong. So Swallow is sticking to it. He changes the arrangement. He’s looking at me weird. I’m thinking instead of like, “Oh we’re supposed to modulate.” First of all, the keyboard player just stopped playing because this is a major trainwreck. And I’m thinking, “Swallow has lost his mind. The poor man has lost it. He’s playing all wrong notes.” And I hadn’t put it together. I just played it out in E flat and ended. Then afterward, I actually didn’t remember. And I was like, “Wow, are you okay, man?” And then everybody said, “No. You were wrong.” And then I was like, “Aw!”

Bob: Did you have an aneurysm or something in there?

John: Yeah. And it was like, “Yeah.” It was like, “Yeah.” That’s what I thought. But then I remembered I had f#@$! up. And I felt so bad. And then it’s all on YouTube – You Don’t Know Me. You can see it right there. I should have it taken down. But it’s almost a trainwreck…

Bob: Your use of effects over the years. Now, when I’m hearing you play, I’m not hearing too many effects in your current playing. A friend of mine who’s a huge fan of yours asked me to ask you this question. “So when did you realize you had finally gotten your tone”?

John: Well, I never realized that. I just realized what was working for me. It’s been like that all along. I never felt satisfied with it. When I listen back to the stuff that had a lot of stereo chorus, some of that I’m like, “Oh, boy. That makes it sound dated.” But I was trying to get a good sound. So I’ve never felt like I got my sound. you know what it is, and I think this is true with playing, is more than anything you know what you don’t want to sound like. So you’re doing stuff, and then you’ll play and you’ll say, “Oh, that’s not what I want to sound like.” Then you try something else. It might not be what you want to sound like, but it’s closer to not being what you don’t want to sound like.

Bob: I hear you. Are you pretty happy with your tone today?

John: It’s better. I mean, I know a lot of people where it just changes all the time. I think the idea of sound is so related to the music that you’re actually playing that I can’t stick with the whole tone thing, although I know what they mean. But to get a great sound is also just a bunch of guys sitting around a guitar getting an amp sounding good in a certain room without anybody else just like, “Oh, listen to that massive sound.” I play gigs all the time, and that has allowed me to be pretty flexible about sound. And if I have a shitty sound, because I never am able to bring my own amp. I just have them rent the amp for me. So you’ve got to be flexible if you’re going to be a professional out there unless you’re in The Rolling Stones, and like Keith Richards has them bring a 58 high-powered twin, three of them every night, that are tweaked perfectly. That’s not me. I’m out there playing rental gear. That’s because I’ve been lucky enough to be a pro who travels the world playing. That’s how you have to do it in jazz. And so I feel like I’ve never gotten the sound right, but once in awhile I’ll get a great sound, I think, and I’ll be like, “Wow, thank you. Tonight it was right.” But you know what else? It’s the room that you’re playing in.

Bob: Oh, absolutely.

John: It’s the other people you’re playing with that affect your sound. If you’re too soft in the mix, you have a shitty sound. On a record, do you ever have the experience of recording and then you hear it, and you’re too soft in the mix and it’s real thin?

Bob: Yes.

John: And then you turned it up and it’s sick. So it’s all so relative to what’s going on. It has been fantastic talking to you, man.

Bob: When they speak about the Wes and those guys, that’s an era. But when you talk about guys in your era, you’re one of the top guys, you’re right there. You are that guy–

John: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. It means a lot, man because you obviously know the shit.

Bob: I appreciate it.

John:  I’ve been lucky, I’ve been lucky, 

Bob: Well, you worked your ass off.

John:  I work hard at it.

John Scofield Makes ECM Debut with Longtime Friend and Mentor Steve Swallow on ‘Swallow Tales’, Available Now!

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