One musical collaboration that might surprise some people is your work with Phil Lesh. How did that relationship start?
It was perhaps 10 years ago when I first played with him. Warren Haynes recommended me, and Phil called and we played a bit in California. Back then we just rehearsed. I don’t think we even played a gig until a year after that. Lately, I’ve been doing a few gigs with him every year. I think this year we’re doing five gigs.
The Dead catalog can be quite intimidating for an outsider.
All those tunes! And I don’t know any of them. But here’s where Phil has been really nice to me: He let’s me have a music stand with the charts on it. I get the recording of the tune, I write out a chart, and I play it. Actually, I put my handwritten charts on a hands-free computer screen. I can scroll through the set, watch the screen, and play from my charts. Otherwise, I’d have to learn those tunes and I’m too stupid for that. [Laughs.]
Another recent project that has caught the ear of many guitarists is your Hollowbody Band. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Stern have each toured with that quartet. Do you see that second guitar chair as a rotating spot?
Yeah. It is at this point, although I would like to do that project with both those guys again. I’d written a bunch of music a little over a year ago. I had six tunes and was thinking of making a jazz record. I thought it would sound good with two guitars, so I orchestrated them for two guitars, called Kurt, and asked if he wanted to do a tour last summer. This year, Kurt got that Clapton Crossroads gig, and he couldn’t do my thing. So then I called Mike [Stern], who’s my old buddy and one of the great guitar players, as we know. We hadn’t played together in many, many years. He wanted to give it a shot, so he learned the tunes and we did it.
How did the Blues Project with Robben Ford come together?
We’d talked about playing together for years. When we finally got around to it, Robben suggested we just call it a blues project. We’re both into blues—he especially with his background with Jimmy Witherspoon and the blues band with his brother—so we decided to do that. It was so much fun.
Any plans to record either the Hollowbody Band or Blues Project?
It’s such a weird time because I can’t record all of them on my record label. That’s all right, because maybe I can do them all eventually, although it might take some time.
It seems like you have some type of new project every year.
It’s the marketplace, mainly, because I make my living doing gigs. After you’ve played in all these places, they want you back but they don’t want you with the same thing. So they ask you about any special projects you might like to do. So that’s where a lot of these things are coming from. In a way, that’s bad because there’s little opportunity to have a band that develops, but in a way it’s good because it forces you to come up with new music and new sounds. In my case, it has really been rewarding because the stuff I might not have gotten to, but wanted to do, the marketplace has pushed me into doing. I’ve benefited from that musically.
Even with all your projects, does your trio still feel like home?
I think so. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. In Europe I’ve done this organ trio with Larry Goldings, who’s a long-time collaborator in different ways, and Greg Hutchinson on drums. That’s another long-standing project, I really want to get into that. But yeah, the trio with Steve Swallow—Steve’s my mentor and Bill Stewart is just a giant.
Scofield’s trio—with Bill Stewart on drums and Steve Swallow on electric bass—burns through a blues from a show in 2010. Eschewing any standard blues clichés, Scofield floats over Swallow’s propulsive bass line.
In several of your recent groups your main musical foil has been another guitarist. What is it about playing with another guitarist that interests you the most right now?
Here’s the thing: I think piano and guitar are a very hard match—they’re both percussive. Every time I hear a group with piano—not only my own group, but other groups—it seems like piano and guitar tend to get in each other’s way. That doesn’t mean I don’t love playing with piano players—I do it in my own groups. Although I think it’s weird that with the organ, that doesn’t happen. With the organ, everyone can play whatever the hell they want and it works. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because the timbre of the organ is more like a choir than a percussive piano. But I think guitars really work well together. When I have another guitar comping and I blow over it, or vice-versa, it works really well because the electric guitar has turned into this thing where it’s a solo voice and an accompanying instrument, so we need each other in a way.