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more... ArtistsGuitaristsFusionJazzAugust 2013

Interview: John Scofield - Uncle John’s Electro-Jam Band

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Interview: John Scofield - Uncle John’s Electro-Jam Band


Scofield and his Überjam band: Avi Bortnick (left), Louis Cato (second from right), and Andy Hess (right).
Photo by Nick Suttle

What as the compositional process like?

More than half of the tunes were composed by me and Avi together. But the way we composed was he had all these tracks that he’d been working on where he overdubbed and put down some grooves and stuff. He gave me 30 of these home demos and then I just messed with them. The songs are basically his kind of grooves and then I put bridges to them or created "A" sections. Turns out some of the stuff I put in was actually material I’d written earlier, but never really found a place for. He just let me take his tunes and manhandle them.

Was most of the tracking done live? Samples and everything?

We play along to the samples. There may be something where we mess up and have to stick a sample in after because the sampler didn’t work, but that’s kind of hard to do. We aren’t playing to a click all the time. On some of the tunes where we stop playing along with the groove and just play as a band, then when we come back in he can click the sample in with his foot in tempo. Hopefully there’s no train wreck and the sample comes in at the same tempo.

On a few tunes there’s a definite Afrobeat influence coming through. Where did that come from?

Avi brought that in. There’s an older song called “Thikhathali” on Up All Night and that’s a real Afrobeat thing. Avi played for many years in a band of guys from Nigeria while he was in San Francisco. He’s quite knowledgeable about Afrobeat music. Two of the tunes on the new album, “Camelus” and “Snake Dance,” are coming out of Fela and all that.

Rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick kicks things off with some samples before drummer Adam Deitch takes over with a hip hop-meets-disco groove. Bortnick’s “solo” at 2:02 is the perfect foil to Scofield’s angular lines.

What is it about this style of electronic-influenced, vamp-oriented music that keeps drawing you in?

I love to play bebop and will continue, probably all my life, to play modern jazz. But when we play in this area, I like the fact that it’s not as developed, that I don’t have Miles and Mingus and Mulligan and Monk looking over my shoulder. Even though it’s very related to that, it’s not that. We’re rocking out and I like that.

You could almost draw a parallel to what those guys were doing in the ’30s and ’40s.

I guess. On one hand, everybody is in love with the history of the music they are passionate about, but is also weighted down by the music of their idols. When you are able to free yourself from that a little bit, it’s a good thing.

Do you approach improvising within this group differently from your trio?

Yeah, I do approach it differently. In a trio, I’m going to play more chords and fill it up more. In this group, I can paint a little bit more and take my time. There are sections where I don’t play. I think in order for this music—or any music really—everybody just can’t jam their stuff in there. That becomes amateurish. I probably play fewer notes than I used to because I’m trying to make them work—and hopefully they are more to the point.

What were your first experiences with vamp-based music?

I started with vamp- and groove-based music when I started playing guitar. In that the music that fusion came from, the James Brown things that original fusion guys were into, is the music that I grew up with in the ’60s. I got better at it and more into it, but it’s funny because I was learning jazz music in the immediate post-fusion era. I got good at playing “Billie’s Bounce”—well, good enough at playing that style of jazz guitar—in the early ’70s. At the same time, fusion reigned, so when I got to play with good jazz players they were always playing some vamps. That was just part of it. The other thing was studying Coltrane and his music with McCoy Tyner. A lot of that music was just vamps. Music coming out of that era of jazz is very applicable to everything Überjam is doing.

Did the first wave of what we now consider jam bands—like the Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers—influence you when you were younger?

Well, I consider Hendrix and Cream jazz-influenced. They were rock groups that took the idea of jazz, in that they played extended solos and improvised together. I see that as an extension of the jazz music from the ’60s and really jazz in general. Labeling these different genres gets pretty confusing and it gets hard to do. Even when the labels are right, there’s always something wrong about it. [Laughs.] I’ve thought about it a lot and I trace the early jam band stuff back to the groups in the rock era that would stretch out like the Grateful Dead. I’m pretty sure all those groups got that idea from modern jazz. Even if they weren’t jazz musicians and couldn’t play the chords to “Stella by Starlight,” they took that concept and used it.

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