John Scofield looks a little like Nicol Williamson's Merlin in the film Excalibur, which might be an apt comparison for a man known as a guitar wizard. Merlin could see into the future, yet it was his fate to revisit the past. And so it is with Scofield, who gazed deeply into the jazz-fusion crystal ball early in his long career, as a member of Miles Davis' early-'80s band. Sure, Miles' Bitches Brew and On the Corner soak up all the critical drool, but what about the vastly underrated Decoy? At times sparse, stark, and austere, Scofield's sneaky, snaky leads worked well with Davis' understated grooves, establishing a blueprint for what's now called nu-jazz and broken beat.
Having gone through almost every possible permutation of guitar-based jazz at some point or another, Scofield returns to Decoy-like territory on Up All Night, his latest release on Verve. "You know what's amazing?" he says over the phone from his New York home. "I feel like I'm working on the same stuff I was working on 25 years ago."
The new album finds Sco and his band holding forth over some punchy, lively beats, embellishing their prog-fusion soundscapes with various effects, samples, and loops from their bag of magic tricks. Up All Night isn't that far removed from überjam, Scofield's recent collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood, but it refines the edges of the jam-band sound into a series of distilled, funky grooves. Though he has a reputation as a pretty serious guy, Scofield has a sense of humor as well; one of his new songs is called "Watch Out for Po-Po." He even simulates a turntable scratch at times, adding yet another dimension to his guitar playing.
Although Scofield has progressed from young lion to crafty veteran over the last three decades, he claims to be unaware of the process involved. "Sometimes, you look back and you say, "I can't believe that was twentysomething years ago,'" he says. He's happy, he says, to still be playing these days, and happier still to be evolving as a musician. "I feel like I'm getting better at what I do. I'm more directed, more focused. ... It hasn't stopped for me."
The guitarist's particular specialty remains jazz-rock, a genre that has evolved considerably since the bell-bottoms-and-Nehru-jackets era. "It's changed; I don't know if it's matured," he says. "You don't want any music to mature that much, because it should stay open. Hopefully, music's still a journey and an exploration and a search and all that." Finding a new angle in jazz, when everything under the sun has been done, is sort of like reinventing the wheel, so to speak. As Professor Sco notes, "The classic stuff from the '60s and '70s is still the root of what's going on today. But what's changed, particularly for our band, is the technology. Things keep reoccurring, different grooves and beats. And jazz itself is really old, a lot older than jazz-rock. In myself, it's just getting closer to the essence, less bullshit in your playing. As far as the rest of the world, there are more good players than ever. But we keep looking to the same roots. If a music doesn't have roots, it's not interesting to me."
Sco seems pretty excited to be getting out in front of his fans again, even if he doesn't especially like the schlep of touring. "I don't necessarily like traveling around like I used to," he admits. "I love being there, just not getting there." Once he's there, though, it's all about the jam. "I love playing, getting up with my friends and making music. Playing and improvising is more of a thrill than it ever was."
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