The art of effectively playing a ballad is a delicate thing. Balancing the sensitivity of a melody with the intense spirit of improvisation has been a constant struggle for musicians for eons. Within that struggle lies the excitement and challenge that guitarist John Scofield tackles with his latest album, A Moment’s Peace. Over the course of a 30+ year career Scofield has tackled everything from cutting-edge fusion (Blue Matter) to down-and-dirty NOLA funk (Flat Out) and techno-jam-band grooves (Überjam). “A ballad album was just the next thing on my to-do list,” says Scofield. Normally, a jazz ballads record is a collection of tried and true standards that have been recorded and performed countless times. With this album, Scofield took a slightly different approach by composing about half of the tunes on the album. “They sound like they could have lyrics, part of them anyways, and that’s what I like about jazz ballads,” mentions Scofield. That implied lyricism is demonstrated in the gentle bossa nova of “Simply Put” and within the folkloric nuances of “Plain Song.”
More so than almost any of his other albums, Scofield’s tone and phrasing is genuine and honest. He might not always wear his influences on his sleeve, but they are usually within arm’s reach. Keeping things simple with little to no effects and a relatively clean tone, Scofield snakes through this set of tunes backed by longtime collaborator, keyboardist Larry Goldings, as well as bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade. “With ballads, you are always in danger of treading too lightly,” states Scofield. Blade and Colley deftly handle that fine line with their always pulsating and propulsive accompaniment. We caught up with Sco to discuss his approach to ballads, the secret to playing slow and his favorite ballad performances.
You have covered a lot of stylistic ground over your career. What prompted you to do an album of ballads?
I really felt like now was the time. I feel like I’m able to do it know. When I was younger, I was more into playing hot. I’m still into that and trying to shred but I feel like I can actually play a ballad now.
Do you approach a ballad differently than other tunes?
It's completely different. Most of these, first of all, are songs. They have a melody and the melody reigns supreme, even when you are blowing on it the melody is always in your mind. The songs I wrote for this album follow that tradition too. It's really about trying to sing on your guitar. If I were to really oversimplify it I would say I just don't play so many notes. When you have a slow tempo, there’s room for so much interpretation of the beat. You can play rubato over it, which is tricky because you always have to keep you place at the same time. You can also play a lot of fast stuff, which is what I got into on "I Want to Talk About You," which is a tune John Coltrane played. Mainly, I would say it’s really just playing the song and your interpretation of it and letting the music breathe. This record is all about the four of us playing together. Also, you need to get a nice sound. When you're playing fast, it almost always doesn't matter what your guitar sounds like. Well, It doesn't matter as much, let's put it that way.
Did you have specific influences in mind for each song?
I didn't have them in mind, but for the songs that are vocal tunes, I learned them from somebody's performance. I did an Abbey Lincoln tune, "Throw it Away." The way she sings it is just in my mind. "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You," is all about Nat King Cole. It's just always there in the back of your head.
Many jazz musicians insist that you don’t really know a ballad unless you know the lyrics. Did you write lyrics for your original tunes?
Nah, [laughs]. I don't have any secret lyrics. If I did, they would be obscene, let me tell ya. These songs are melodic pieces. Invariably, some overeager jazz singer who has just graduated from Ohio State or something, wants to put lyrics to your tune and you have to go, "Uh, I don't know if that fits." You just treat them as if they had words and just play melodically. Which is a whole another thing and then your phrasing and the way you hit the note, vibrato, dynamics, all of that stuff comes into play. How long do you sustain the note?
You mentioned earlier how you feel like you are just now learning how to play a ballad. What specifically do you notice about your playing that makes you feel that way?
When I listen back to my early records, one thing I really hear is that I didn't know how to get off a note. I knew how to hit it, but I didn't know how to end it. Part of that was because I didn't practice through an amp. When you are playing without an amp, it's just kind of dead and the note ends on its own faster. With an amp, you have a monster you must tame. There are a lot of things to think about when you are playing slowly that are really important and we all tend to over-emphasize this one aspect of playing really fast and getting that happening as if the slow stuff will take care of itself. The great lyrical guitar players, there's not that many, only a couple, but their technique is incredible at doing that and getting a sound.