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

Scofield gets in the groove on his lawsuit-era Ibanez T-style. Photo by Lisa Miller.

Combining a jazz concept with an electronic-influenced vocabulary, John Scofield takes us behind the scenes of his new album, "Überjam Deux," and dishes on everything from relic’d guitars to Dead tunes.

You could make a case that John Scofield gets bored easily. “Maybe a little bit,” he says with a laugh. Even a cursory glance at his output from the last decade reveals he has tackled everything from straight-ahead modern jazz (ScoLoHoFo’s OH! and Enroute) to an old-school R&B Ray Charles tribute, and even New Orleans gospel (Piety Street). Yet within each new musical outfit, Scofield’s edgy, Vox-powered tone comes through loud and clear.

On his latest album, Überjam Deux, Scofield reunites with the same outfit that was on his 2002 album, Überjam. It shares the same forward-thinking approach his previous employers, Miles Davis and Billy Cobham, explored in the heyday of jazz-fusion.

While Scofield does sneak in hints of his well-developed bebop language here and there, you always can count on a healthy dose of the blues. “Although I don’t consider myself a ’blues’ player,” says Scofield, “I love blues guitar and have been trying to get into it my whole life—B.B. King and Albert King, who’s a freak of all time.”

In all the Überjam projects, Avi Bortnick handles the rhythm guitar duties, as well as executing all the samples live and in real-time. “That’s the way Überjam has always done it,” says Scofield. “We do it all at once and Avi has a system where he can trigger the samples with a foot controller.”

That edge between where everything works out and anything could go wrong is where the most adventurous of jazz musicians live, and Scofield has taken up residence there for the better part of four decades. Even among his contemporaries—Stern, Frisell, and Metheny—Scofield’s approach is singular, and he could even be considered the most open-minded of that group. We caught up with Scofield between tours to talk about the motivation behind reuniting Überjam, his new pedalboard, and what attracts him to guitars that just feel old.

It’s pretty hard to sit still while listening to the new album. Some of the tracks have a very danceable quality.

Yeah, I agree, it uses elements of that stuff. But when I think of dance music, it’s Britney Spears and that kind of thing. This is different. It’s not music that’s made specifically for dancing. But, yeah, it has that "four on the floor" stuff that’s disco, really. It has become dance music.

When did you first start to experiment with electronics in your music?

When I started doing this band with Avi Bortnick‚ over 10 years ago‚ I’d made a record called Bump, which had a lot of things with two guitars where I overdubbed stuff. So I was looking for a rhythm guitar player and I found Avi. We started playing together and he told me about all this stuff going on out there with electronics and how he was interested in that. He brought in some loops that we started to play along with. It was probably around 2001. I was interested in it, but I didn’t even own a computer at that time. I just didn’t know how to do it.

It’s been a decade since the first Überjam album. What inspired you to revisit this group? Did you have a stockpile of material?

No, I didn’t really have tunes lying around. I was just thinking of what I wanted to do next. I always loved playing with those guys and I thought enough time had gone by that we could do something different from what we’d done before. I felt the urge to do something with electronics and thought why not play with those guys? We’re a great band and we have something else in us that could come out.

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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.

Photo by Margaret Fox

Your sound has been closely associated with your Ibanez AS-200 for nearly 30 years. Did you continue to use it on this album?

I used my Ibanez for half the album and my Fender Strat for the other.

What was it about the Strat that drew you away from the Ibanez?

I’ve played the Ibanez for 30 years and it’s still my main guitar, but it’s just fun to play other guitars. One thing about these Fender guitars—both the Telecaster and Stratocaster—is the more I play them, the more they respond differently. They make certain things easier to play because they speak on particular kinds of things that the Ibanez doesn’t, and vice versa. There’s one tune we were working on, and I was playing the Strat. Avi said, “Just go back and play it on your Ibanez.” I did and that was exactly what it needed.

Are they vintage Fenders or newer ones?

No, they are fake vintage. [Laughs.] They’re from the Custom Shop. I told a friend of mine, Artie Smith, who is one of the great guitar guys in New York, that I wanted to get a Strat, but didn’t want to spend 15 grand on a vintage one. He said there was a good one at Sam Ash, so I went up there and played it for a while. I was totally embarrassed to buy it, because it has a fake cigarette burn in it and screws that have been rusted and two kinds of rubbed-off finish. [Laughs.] But you know, it sounds really good and it’s a great guitar.

Do you think there’s something special about playing a guitar that simply feels old?

I think it might have something to do with what the Custom Shop is doing to the guitars to make them play like a guitar that has been around for a while. I think it’s something more than just the cosmetic value, but I’m not sure because that whole thing is magic anyway.

I just bought an old ES-330 because I was playing a gig with my Tele and I broke a string and I’d left my strings back at the hotel like a dummy. The guitarist in the other band had an old 330, and I borrowed it and loved it. So I shopped around for a 330 and at one point I was trying to choose between 10 vintage ones in different stores. But one of the shops, Willie’s in Minneapolis, also had a new Gibson Custom Shop ES-330, and I came close to buying that one because it was really good. When I closed my eyes, I had a hard time figuring out which guitar was vintage. But as it turns out, each one of them is different anyway.

It sounds like you didn’t use many effects on the album.

I only used my Boomerang on one part of “Snake Dance.” However, I did get a new pedalboard for this tour. My old pedalboard died and Mason from Vertex Effects came down to a gig in Oakland. I knew he had been making pedalboards for a lot of the guys out West, including Robben [Ford]. For Überjam, I have to have my Wammy Wah pedal, although I didn’t use it on this record. Mason convinced me to try a new distortion pedal, which is the Blue Note, and that was nice. He also sold me on one of his new wah pedals, which replaced the Vox I’d been using. I use my Boomerang off the board, so he came up with a way to hook it up since it’s not true bypass and because it’s big. I use the Boomerang a lot in Überjam. You can’t program anything into the Boomerang, which is good, so I do it all on the fly. I just quickly play something in there and it comes back either in half-time or double-time, backwards or something.

Scofield's pedalboard

Did Mason mod any of your existing pedals?

Yeah, my old Boss GE-2 Equalizer and Boss CE-3. The equalizer is more like a treble booster and the chorus was modified with a faster speed, more warble, and some fatness to emulate a Leslie. He then made them all true bypass.

Your previous pedalboard was a loop-based system and this new version is more linear. Why the switch?

This new one has a buffer, which is a new thing for me. My previous pedalboard, which was also really good and made by Pedal-Racks here in New York, was a different system. On that board I was able to turn on each pedal individually so my guitar would not be routed through other pedals. When you have each one on, you’re only going through that pedal. With Mason’s system, they are all hooked up through the buffer and it magically makes it sound okay. He took my old pedals and made them true bypass, so everything is true bypass and the buffer gives back whatever you’re losing. It’s pretty amazing.

Paired with longtime collaborators, Medeski, Martin, and Wood, Sco employs some reverse looping to create a call-and-response effect during a show from the North Sea Jazz Festival.

John Scofield's Gear

1981 Ibanez AS-200, Fender Custom Shop Relic Stratocaster, ’70s Ibanez “lawsuit” T-style guitar

Mid-’90s Vox AC30 Top Boost

DigiTech Whammy XP100, TC Electronic Polytune Mini, Neunaber Technology Mono Wet Reverb, Vertex-Modified Boss CE-3, Empress Tremolo, Vertex-Modified Boss GE-7 Equalizer, Vertex Axis Wah, Rockett Audio Designs Blue Note Overdrive, Bomerang Phrase Sampler

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario .011-.049 (on Ibanez), D’Addario .010-.049 (on Strat), Dunlop 2 mm Delrin picks

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.