Sometimes he plays jazz/funk. Sometimes he plays countrified jazz. Sometimes his jazz is loaded with electronic music, or rock, or soul. Always with guitarist John Scofield, though, there is a return to small band, straight-ahead jazz.
It’s not by design, though, Scofield said. And the other styles find their way in.
“It’s just sort of where I’m at, you know,” said Scofield, who brings his Combo 66 to Jefferson Center on Friday. “Straight-ahead jazz always fascinated me, and I want to get better at it, and I love playing it. But it doesn’t ever come out completely like it did in 1955, because of my other leanings. With Combo 66, we do some funky stuff, and some country tunes, and turn ’em into jazz.”
The band will be playing music from last year’s album, “Combo 66,” the title a nod to Scofield’s age at the time.
He recently turned 67, though. “I should change the name of the group,” he said.
Everyone from the recording — drummer Bill Stewart, pianist/organist Gerald Clayton and bassist Vicente Archer — will be onstage with him. In a recent phone interview, we discussed his sidemen, as well as his own playing and approach to music.
Stewart is Scofield’s longtime partner in jazz grooves. Scofield has always had his pick of distinctive drummers, Dennis Chambers, Adam Deitch, Omar Hakim, Brian Blade, Johnny Vidocavich and more. As the years have passed, he has played with Stewart more than any other. The key is playing well together, Scofield said.
“First of all, I think he’s as good as you can get at jazz drumming,” he said. “He’s such a great musician. It turns out, that’s what it takes on any instrument, is just somebody who understands the entire band and how it works. That’s the case with Bill. He can play piano, and really understands the music, and his time is so good. It just swings the band. It pushes us and makes it always snappy, which I really like.”
Clayton and Archer are new to Scofield’s musical world, but they aren’t strangers. Scofield has known Clayton since the keyboardist was a kid, a son of bassist John Clayton, and he later heard the younger Clayton with his high school jazz band, which won a contest to play the Playboy Jazz Festival. Scofield was on the bill that year. Clayton sounded fantastic then, Scofield said, and later moved to New York City, where he made it on the jazz scene.
“Turns out, he’s just about my favorite piano player to play with,” he said. “I guess we’re just like-minded. The stuff he chooses, a lot of these are my original tunes, and the way he plays it, it’s just so great to hear his take on them after I blow, and hear what he has to say musically. It just seems to expand the whole band so much. He’s a really, really great player.”
It will be at least the second gig for Archer on Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Performance Hall stage. He was part of a Robert Glasper show in March 2016 that was nearly as notable for its madcap humor as its dazzling music. Archer was a musical straight man to Glasper, deeply prepared for wherever the leader took his trio.
“Vicente Archer is perfect for me, because he’s also just lock-step with Stewart,” Scofield said. “They lay down this super happening carpet, but it’s also interactive, because he’s always listening. I really like where he’s coming from too, musically.
“I think with all these guys, it turns out we share a lot of love for the same stuff.”
And that stuff is?
“Modern jazz of the hard-swinging variety,” Scofield said. “And funk, too! And old R&B.”
He cited the band’s recently developed cover of the standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
“It’s a swing tune, but Vicente started to play this reggae thing that was just incredible,” he said. “It turned into this thing where Bill was playing straight ahead, and Vicente was playing this warped reggae bass. What these guys come up with, I love.”
Expect to hear at least one more standard, “But Beautiful,” along with a Stewart composition and two cuts from “A Go Go,” Scofield’s first of multiple collaborations with Medeski Martin & Wood. All of it will come out sounding like Combo 66, though. Scofield prefers his music and performances to keep growing and changing in a place where theoretical know-how meets individual creativity.
“Well, that’s the whole point, you know, is to not have it sound too technical,” he said. “I don’t like that. Some people that are really into blues or country and stuff, they’ll say, well, theory, I don’t want to mess up my soul. Theory is just a way of expanding your ear, I think. Then you play by ear, but you have an expanded vocabulary. Because these theoretical things, you can really incorporate them in to what you have to say on your instrument.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, is to never just let my fingers do the walking, but have it come from my ear and my heart, and hopefully I’ll succeed. But that’s the jazz curse, is when it gets too intellectual.”
Scofield’s style, phrasing and tone are so unique that he is typically immediately identifiable, but he only rarely sounds like he is walking old ground. That’s remarkable for a player whose recording career as a bandleader started in 1977 and includes dozens of albums.
When did he realize that he had found himself, musically?
“I have no idea,” he said. “If you listen to the early stuff, I was in a way a late bloomer compared to some people. I made the first record when I was 23, when I was a sideman. If you listen to that stuff, when I was younger, I don’t sound like me. So it happened somewhere in there. So just the longer you play, the identity establishes itself.
“I think I was always aware that jazz was a music where you were allowed to have your own personality, which I loved. It was kind of cool, because maybe you weren’t the type of person who played really fast. Or maybe you were. Or maybe you liked chords more. You could be yourself in jazz. There was room for all this, and I knew from the examples there out there.
“Then all you have to do it let it happen. Then I had my idols who were very into their own thing on their instrument, you know, and maybe different from the norm, the orthodox, and I loved that.”
Multiple Sco solos have quoted or referenced the likes of jazz guitar legends Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery.
“You know, I’m always studying the masters,” he said. “I don’t stop. And I’m trying not to, because I don’t want to play their shit verbatim. But I love ‘em.”
A recent article by Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg music educator Adam Gustafson looked at the role of academia in the fall of jazz music as a popular style. Having just come across it (read it here - https://theconversation.com/did-academia-kill-jazz-110485), I felt like Scofield would be a good one to comment on such a thing, generally, and to give his take on the genre’s future. After all, he’s been doing a lot to keep it alive, even if that wasn’t his goal.
“It’s always changing,” said Scofield, who attended Berklee College of Music. “The music scene changes, the world changes, so music changes. And things get lost, too. There’s a golden era of jazz that people will be whining about, that is not around anymore. But that’s the way it is, and everything changes. But we can learn from the past for sure.
“As far as the academia in jazz, that is pretty strange. This music ... was very intellectual to begin with, although the greats like Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and whoever, the early jazz guys, they transcended the intellectual stuff. That’s why it became the most popular music in the world in the early part of the 20th century. But it was intellectual to begin with, so it should be, like poetry and literature, enshrined in the ivory tower.
“But keeping jazz alive? You know, music is alive, and the people that like jazz will like it and keep playing it. lt should be allowed to evolve and change completely and not be called jazz anymore, and just be music that’s just being played. You can’t stop things from changing.
“I keep music alive because I’m a fan. I don’t think it’s my mission on earth to keep jazz alive, because in a way, that gets into this repressive thing, like there’s only one way to play. So I’m suspect of that, even though I’m a jazz purist too.
He laughed. “It’s pretty weird.”
He has never approached the music like a purist. I first discovered him in the “Blue Matter” era, when drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Gary Grainger were with him, and that stuff could get incredibly funky. He’s deeply explored New Orleans-style funk, along with soul and country, over the years. Previously, the only time I ever heard him live was when he was touring behind the “Uberjam Deux” album, which used looping, samples and some EDM elements.
“You’ve gotta stay in a lot of camps,” said Scofield, who as a 15-year-old growing up in Connecticut was a Chicago-style blues snob. “I like the 'Uberjam' thing, and 'Blue Matter' funk. I love that shit. I came up playing electric music. I’m a guitar player, and guitar players are exposed to all this stuff just by playing the instrument — blues, country, rock. How can you be a guitar player and not be somewhat into that style. And I know there are kids that just start off just with jazz, like one whose dads play [a Gibson] L-5 or something, but at some point they’ll mess around with a solid body guitar or a whammy pedal.”
What’s next for Sco, studio-wise?
“I don’t have a next project worked out,” he said. “Combo 66 will keep playing this year. I recently did 10 solo gigs, which I never did before. I did them in Europe. It worked out really well, you know. I really loved doing it. I was really scared for many, many years to do it. But I have a looper pedal on some stuff. But it’s a real challenge, and fun, it turns out, so I’m looking forward to doing more of that.
"I’m playing with Lettuce next week [we spoke on March 14]. Those guys. We’re doing five shows on the West Coast. They’re going to play some of my tunes from the Grammavision era [1984-1989], and I’ll play on some of their tunes. So I’m really looking forward to that.
“Tonight I’m playing with [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh at Capital Theatre, for his 79th birthday, and Combo 66, we’re playing our jazz. We’ve got a bunch of stuff. It keeps going.”