As one of the last in a distinguished line of artists who put in time with Miles Davis, John Scofield draws from the trumpeter/jazz gurus electro-funk side more than from his earlier, bop-inflected work. On his latest outing, Bump, Scofield simmers on a series of jams whose relatively spare structures and steamy grooves recall the feel of Star People and other later Davis milestones.
Of course, Scofield has traveled far in the nearly 20 years since those sessions. His style has evolved into one of the most recognizable among contemporary guitarists in any genre. It breaks down to three essential elements: a unique sound, a prickly harmonic sense, and a mission to say as much as possible with the fewest notes.
In the latter respect, Scofield shows his roots in blues and funk. Though he has chops to spare, he prefers to draw from the well of B.B. King by letting single notes hang in the air for a while, rather than bury them in a lickety-split line. It may be more accurate, though, to point to Thelonious Monk as a true antecedent, since theres something pianistic about Scofields approach: His minor seconds and flat ninths reflect a keyboard, more than a fretboard, sensibility. Guitar.com recently sat down with Sco to talk about practicing, alternate tunings, horn emulation, and poignant minimalism.
Guitar.com: Have you tried to build a distinctive sound over the years, in the same way that you might build technique through diligent practice?
John Scofield: Well, I practice scales too, just like anybody else. But sound is really important. I think I was less aware of my sound earlier on, though. When I listen to the first few records I made as a leader, I feel like I wasnt as into sound as I am now. As far as trying to get a different sound than anyone else, at first I got a big, fat jazz guitar. Then I decided at some point to try to get the guitar to sustain more, to be more like a saxophone, so I used amp distortion and some of the techniques that are available to guitarists from rock 'n roll. Not that many people in jazz had done that. The Jim Hall generation and those guys didn't really have that option, although I know John Abercrombie did that sort of thing. But Jim Hall rose above that and had his own sound completely. So did Wes Montgomery. Even though it was within the basic jazz guitar thing, you could always tell them from just one note.
Guitar.com: When did you start hearing a different kind of guitar sound in your imagination?
Scofield: I didn't hear it so much as I thought I could sound more like a sax or a horn. I was actually trying to sound like a saxophone. That was probably in the early 70's.
Guitar.com: What about harmonies? You don't play traditional jazz chords that often. Did you consciously create a more dissonant harmonic foundation for yourself?
Scofield: Well, the basis of my chordal playing is Jim Hall, although I'm a very different player. It's that idea of using minor seconds in the voicings and getting that rub from the close intervals wherever you can, and to try to find those voicings that Jim did before we all picked up on it from him. A lot of times I'll play smaller, two- and three-note chords, just using the interval of a major seventh or a flat nine; you don't have to put the bass note in, because the bass players already playing the root.
Guitar.com: You use double-stops in your solos a lot too.
Scofield: Yeah. I've learned how to do certain phrases in double-stops where it's maybe not even the whole line. There will be single notes or a couple of notes, and then I'll throw a double-stop into the middle of it. I've tried to get a more pianistic approach.
Guitar.com: Have you experimented with alternate tunings?
Scofield: Not really. Maybe thats gonna happen in the future, because there are a whole lot of possibilities there. But, quite honestly, I haven't really done that because I can't do my normal licks [laughs].
Guitar.com: On "We Are Not Alone," from the new album, you employ minor seconds in the theme, then you fall back to more consonant chords in the release. How aware are you of that balance as you compose?
Scofield: Even if I don't think of it that way all the time, I'm very aware of that. You don't want to have the same thing happening all the time. It's nice when dissonance goes into consonance. That's what makes harmony interesting.
Guitar.com: You're getting more into sound effects too, such as the squeaky bits in "Beep Beep."
Scofield: I've been starting to do that more lately. There's a guy on the album named Mark De Gli Antoni [formerly of Soul Coughing], who plays around with these samples that he speeds up, slows down, starts and stops, to go with the music. I'm really into using stuff from that world right now. It all depends on who you do it with. I do my effects on the guitar, and he's doing his stuff in his domain. A few years ago I was mainly into just playing lines and writing tunes. This stuff was happening all around me, but I wasnt textural; I chose not to be. But I've been able to expand that way in the last few years; I'm not sure why.
Guitar.com: It's allowed you to strip the compositions down to skeletal frames and to fill the spaces with effects.
Scofield: It just seems like the right thing to do. You have more to say, so sometimes its better to have a little bit less. With a more skeletal form, its easier to fill in, and its more fun.
Guitar.com: As you're writing these minimal pieces, how do you know when the tune is done?
Scofield: You know its done when you feel like youve got enough. Over the years Ive written so many tunes where I over-wrote a little bit, and when we came to soloing, it didn't work. So I've been staying away from that. I guess the other end of that is when you just write nothing [laughs]. But I really like tunes that are real simple but profound. Less is more, brevity is the soul of wit, that kind of thing.
Guitar.com: With Mark doing atmospheric work, there's no other soloist in your band for you to trade licks with.
Scofield: Yeah, but I really like the fact that I'm doing that. Then when we get into improvising, its more of a sonic groove that's not fast notes. That gives it a wider variety.
Guitar.com: Which leads to your ability to say a lot with a few notes.
Scofield: Well, that just happened, you know? I listened back to this record recently. I liked what I played, and I didn't play a whole lot of notes. I've just been influenced by Miles and those guys who played sparse. Especially in the rhythmic funky stuff, it seems like you don't want to clutter it up. You want to be in the groove, not in the way of the groove. But I honestly didnt think that much about it. I'm just trying to play good.