Guitarist John Scofield is no stranger to collaboration, having played with monumental artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Phil Lesh, to name a few. Yet, out of all the legends he has played with and groups he has fronted or had a hand in, what may be John Scofield’s most notable and consistent collaboration is his work with the avant-jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Since first getting together with the group on his 1998 album A Go Go, Scofield has been something of an honorary member of MMW due to their frequent work as a quartet. For fans of MMW, the presence of a monstrously talented lead guitarist like Scofield adds an exciting dynamic to the group and morphs their sound into something entirely different.
The group’s recently released full length album, Juice (Indirecto Records), is their first studio collaboration of original material since their 2006 work, Out Louder. Though MSMW have toured together numerous times over the last several years and even released a 2011 live album called In Case the World Changes Its Mind, there is something intriguing and special about seeing what these four masters of the form can do together in the studio. Juice features a collection of original tunes and colorful instrumental reworkings of classic tunes like The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” The album is steeped in tropical influences and styles ranging from boogaloo soul jazz to heavy dub and everything in between. Ultimately, Juice is a long overdue studio reunion for Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, and it is invigorating to hear what each musician brings to the table. Fresh off a European tour with his own Überjam, John Scofield took the time to chat about the MSMW sound, Juice, and the never dull life of a jazz guitarist.
A big part of the dynamic between all of you seems to be this idea of equal representation. Are there challenges to keeping with that?
Let me start by saying that yeah, it’s a cooperative group. There’s not just going to be all my tunes or Billy Martin’s tunes. In a cooperative group, just like anything, you have to listen up to what everybody wants to do and let everybody suggest things about the music and the repertoire. That being said, once we start playing we all go into this other cooperative mode that exists in every kind of jazz group – if it’s any good – which is the mode of listening to each other and responding, and making your music fit the other people’s improvisations. That happens all the time no matter what, so as far as the spirit of cooperation, it already exists for the music. The other thing is more just kind of an arrangement because it is a 4-way cooperative group that we do. But once we start to play we go into play mode which, if you’re worth your salt at all in this music, you give it up for the other guys and let everybody have a piece. It’s not like playing behind a superstar singer where you’re accompanying them all the time. Everybody steps out and has their own voice in this music.
Does your not being a permanent member of this particular band have an effect on how MMW interact musically when you come into the picture?
I’ve done it off and on for many years now, so they’re used to having me, and it’s a separate identity from MMW. But yeah, MMW has their own super tight thing that they do, and when you add me it changes. I think those guys really like it because it gives them a chance to do something different. To comp (comp is short for accompany) behind a soloist for John (Medeski), that’s really a big thing for him. Medeski is really good at doing that and that’s an art form you learn when you’re a keyboard player. As a trio they don’t get to back somebody up.
With Juice, what was the studio process like? Did you each bring in pre-written material?
On this record we did. We each brought in our tunes; either original tunes – which everybody did bring – or things that we wanted to cover. So the record is like half original, either by me, Billy, or Chris. Actually, John didn’t end up bringing anything in on this one, and then everybody had ideas of some rock and roll classics that we wanted to do.
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There are some interesting covers on the album. How did you choose them, and as a jazz musician how do you go about reconstructing songs like those to match the instrumental style of the band?
You have to think instrumentally. A lot of songs don’t work that are vocal tunes, and when you turn them into instrumental they lose something. Actually, it’s funny because it can be the other way around; sometimes someone will write lyrics to an instrumental jazz tune and that can be really bad too. Each one of these songs was something that we heard and said, ‘oh man, that could work for us playing instrumentally.’ You just sort of hear it in your head. There’s a tune, “Sunshine of Your Love,” which is an old Cream song that everybody knew, and we completely deconstructed that. Nobody thought to do that in advance, we just started playing it in the studio. John deconstructed the guitar hook (Eric Clapton’s guitar part) played it in two keys at once, which was totally weird. Then I played the melody because I remembered how Jack Bruce sang it. The thing is, we played it really slow and put a dub thing on it. Then we took it and went completely far out – there’s like 8 minutes of free improvisation – but it’s all in a dub groove.
There seems to be a common musical thread linking each song, most notably that sort of Afro-Latin, boogaloo influence. Can you talk about where you came from on these styles?
I think that’s really something that MMW do really well. First of all, when you make a record I think it really helps to have a focus before you go in, to just have some sort of limitation on it so you have direction. MSMW could take any idea and make a decent record out of it; we could take classical music, country western, Indian music – we could take any of those things and make something kind of interesting because we’re good enough musicians that we would turn it into our own shit. MMW has done a lot of African/Brazilian/boogaloo kind of stuff, and that also includes Afro-Cuban music. I’m familiar with those forms too and love them, so that’s what we did.
In your playing you often walk a line between a jazz and funk thing. Is there anything that sort of distinguishes those for you?
Blues, jazz, and funk are so incredibly related; it’s all African-American music and different music. R&B was a popularization of jazz, and jazz was popular in the first half of the twentieth century. Basically, one way to say it is that I got into blues first sort of to get the sound of the blues guitar down. Just like everybody does when you first pick up a guitar, you get into like rock and roll and pentatonics, that kind of blues box. I did that and got way into it and then got into jazz, and then other sounds and melodies. You can use blues in jazz, so they overlap. But I understand the boundaries; I just play in both idioms and they both inform each other.
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You’re always dwelling in so many projects. Besides MSMW, do you have anything else going on?
Uberjam had a record that came out last year, so we’ve been on tour for a year and a half, and that’s kind of winding down now. I’m going back to Europe to play with my trio and then I play with MMW. Next year I’m going to have a record come out – I’m not actually sure what it is – it might be a trio record I made of jazz standards, but I have to decide if I think it’s good enough. That music has been played so well in the past. I’ve got a lot of gigs lined up for 2015, and some record will come out next fall, but I just have to figure out what one.
Do you find a difference playing in front of jazz audiences versus say a hippie jam band audience, and does that affect your approach to a set?
Usually when everybody’s hanging out and dancing and stuff you can play a long time. I love that. I really like to play for people that are dancing; it inspires us. On the other hand, sometimes those big hippie audiences might not listen if you want to play a ballad or a really soft song, that can get lost, and there’s nothing like a beautiful concert hall for intimate music.