Mar 152024

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

John Scofield

Guitar great John Scofield values the art of improvisation and seeks those moments of inspiration when an individual or band achieve moments of transcendence. Historically he has tried to do this during 150 gigs a year, in all sorts of settings.  Even if a small fraction of that work is laid down, Scofield also has a huge catalogue of recorded work. He has put out work under his own name, or that of one of his bands, every year for over 40 years and is a valued sideman, collaborator, and mentor for many others.

Jazz is an obvious format for improvisation, and Scofield describes himself as a jazz guitarist. Someone who studied at the Berklee School of Music and has worked with Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and a host of modern greats is certainly entitled to describe himself any way that he wishes. Certainly you should not go into his music if you have a distaste or disdain for the “only truly original American art form.”

Scofield can nevertheless thrive in other environments. Phil Lesh has made him a vital collaborator in his Phil Lesh and Friends project, improvising around the Grateful Dead canon. Indeed, jam bands in general view him as an inspiration and touchstone, and he has worked with Lesh, The Allman Brothers and Trey Anastasio, amongst others. When beloved covers band Scary Pockets wanted to develop their own funky music, as Scary Goldings, they put him on the roster. He takes, and brings, his inspiration wherever he finds it.

This is partly because he loves and respects other musicians. It would be difficult to play thousands of gigs if you didn’t like the life of “the road dog,” and those that you live it with.  His website shows that, even in 2024, he is playing three continents in three months, under his own name. (The 2022 movie Inside John Scofield gives some insight into this.) His warmth and appreciation of others must make him a rich collaborative partner. He clearly has huge empathy, which must be a vital part of successful improvisation. He carries around his musical tool, and is not unduly technical or fastidious about the details of his guitar, but he has a huge amount of time and empathy for those who turn up to a new instrument every night, such as a piano or Hammond organ. He loves telling tall tales (or flat-out lies) about those that he has worked with to fill the traveling hours. It is obvious that people enjoy working with him, and his collaborations are unusually long-lasting.

In the end, it is about his relationship with the guitar. He plays every day, gig or not, and can no longer conceive of a life where he does not do this. That is the constant. The early morning lobby calls weigh more heavily than they used to when he was a younger man, not the grandfather he is now. It is more difficult to improvise alone when you are used to a group setting, but it is a skill you can learn. It is perhaps no surprise that Scofield did not release his first solo guitar album until the pandemic took him off the road. He is now back on the circuit again, and picking up gigs as they arise (particularly if they are in New York), but he is also happy in his basement, testing the boundaries of his skills.

For this piece we have selected some special tracks not from jazz standards, but from the pop, rock and jam band songbooks. This itself encompasses a wide range of pieces, but all allow that hope of the joys of improvisation.

Miles Davis – Human Nature (Michael Jackson cover)

Miles Davis moved with the times, or his interpretation of where the times were. At every stage of his career, people found reasons to disagree with his choices. He was not sophisticated enough to play with Charlie Parker early on, and too sophisticated to do electric music and funk in the ’70s. So it is unsurprising that another group of people thought that pop music covers were a step too far in the ’80s. Of course, Davis doubled down and made this song a standard piece of his set for years, and there are many marvelous live versions on YouTube.

Scofield worked with Davis for several years during this phase, providing music and compositions (or at least the sketches that Davis liked to record from). For this marvelous cover Scofield is mainly providing an underpin to Davis’ muted trumpet improvisation, but the tightness of the band and the desire for the new shine through.

John Scofield and Mavis Staples – I Can’t Stop Loving You (Ray Charles cover)

John Scofield has a long association and deep love for the music of Ray Charles, and returns to it frequently.  For his 2005 tribute album he was joined by a number of others who also loved the music, including Dr. John, John Mayer and Aaron Neville. It is a bountiful celebration of a great legacy. Even in that context, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” with Mavis Staples sticks out as an absolute beauty. Scofield understands R&B and Staples knows how to sing it.

DJ Logic with John Scofield – Cars Trucks and Buses (Phish cover)

The mutual respect between Trey Anastasio and Scofield goes back many years, and they have shared stages together. The 2001 charity album Sharin’ in the Groove: Celebrating the Music of Phish saw Scofield paired with DJ Logic, no stranger to jam bands himself. A fusion between hip-hop and jazz licks, it works amazingly well, showing that each can be nimble and understanding of the other.

John Scofield Band – Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)

John Scofield does Country! There is always the suspicion (see below) that Scofield uses his time on the road to come up with witty titles for albums, or chooses material based on some humorous motivation of his own. Our enthusiastic review of the album suggested Country for Old Men was the title of the year. On the other hand there is so much more here than a throwaway joke, as befits the Grammy Winner for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for 2017. Scofield is joined here by close buddies Steve Swallow, Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart. Together they go through the licks, using country songs as a stepping-off point. This is a tour de force, with respect for the source material but with joy in elucidating where it could go.

John Scofield – Uncle John’s Band (Grateful Dead cover)

Scofield’s latest sees him with his long-time collaborators Bill Stewart and Vincente Arthur. Uncle John’s Band is not a tribute album to the Grateful Dead, but a double album of mixed new compositions and covers. Scofield says that he is not a Deadhead as such, but he has known of their music for over 50 years, and saw them live in the early days (but only when they were on the same bill as a jazz artist he was following). His work with Phil Lesh has given him more appreciation for the depth of the music, and here he works with his closest musical collaborators to bring a light, enjoyable tone to the proceedings. Of the Grateful Dead tunes that he liked, which did he choose this one? Only Uncle John Scofield and his band can answer.

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  2 Responses to “In The Spotlight: John Scofield”

Comments (2)
  1. Lovely piece, lovely writing!

  2. A while back CMS offered up five good covers of this song. I included this version in the comment to that thread. It fits here. too.

    Medeski, Scofield. Martin and Wood – Sunshine of Your Love

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