John Scofield – Piety Street

As John Scofield’s career has evolved, he has turned into almost as much of a musicologist as a musician. The transformation has occurred, however, without slighting the latter most and significant role: “Sco” remains one of contemporary jazz’s most distinctive guitar players.

His instantly recognizable style—staccato yet fluid as he integrates the touch and tone of both blues and jazz—appears on his own recordings and on stage with his own aggregations, but also in somewhat unlikely company. John Scofield is nothing if not open-minded, so it’s no more of a surprise to hear him playing with Phil Lesh and Friends than the visionaries of nouveau jazz Medeski Martin and Wood or as part of a trio with Steve Swallow and Jack DeJohnette.

These collaborations intermingle with original projects such as the 2005 tribute to Ray Charles, That’s What I Say;  Scofield’s adventure into composition and arrangement This Meets That and now his New Orleans- based expedition into the realm of blues and gospel Piety Street.

Deceptively ambitious as is the new album and the tour to follow (the group’s second after a European jaunt last fall upon completion of the studio recording), this work reveals, perhaps more than any other endeavor of Scofield’s, his deeply felt curiosity as a music-lover. As evinced in this conversation, Scofield’s amiable demeanor is so infectious, it’s impossible not to share his excitement about his latest discoveries.

I was excited to receive your new album Piety Street and I’ve enjoyed listening to it tremendously. When did you have the epiphany that prompted you to record a blues album?

Well, I’ve always had blues as part of my thing and the past couple years I’ve been listening back to some classic blues stuff, so I thought about doing that. But then I thought: “Well, I love the classic blues form but there’s been eight zillion albums by blues bands–and that’s where I started too– but I thought it’d be nice to do it differently and picking gospel repertoire would give a little bit of a different slant to it. That’s when the epiphany happened: “Wow, we can play all these tunes!”

So when it came time to get down to work and actually make the project happen, did you have a list you wanted to pick from or did you take them off the top of your head?

I had a big long list that came of the top of my head because I am a gospel music fan. And I have this one friend especially, for twenty years he’s been feeding me stuff—his name is Paul Siegel–and he’s been giving me recordings. But it goes back a long way with me to when I first heard Mahalia Jackson when I was a kid and then over the years. hearing this and that gospel performance, realizing that people like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles were very gospel oriented, learning about the history of the music.

How did you narrow it down to the tunes you actually wanted to include on the album? Was it in consultation with the guys in the band?

Very much so. First I went down to New Orleans to try to figure out who was going to play and so I played with a bunch of musicians and I ended up picking those cats.

I was going to ask you how that came about?

Maybe that’s a little bit of a different story than the material, but first I picked the guys. That was a year and a half ago I went down there on a separate trip and stayed down there a couple days and played with a bunch of players. I knew I wanted to have vocals and

I’m a Jon Cleary fan from way back: he’s incredible. He’s one of the great soul singers today period and an incredible piano player. I knew I wanted to play with him and he came down and played with me some and it just worked so well.

And then on bass you go no further than George Porter Jr. on bass; we had done one of those SuperFly jams and I had gotten to know him and I’m a big fan of his from all the classic recordings he’s made.

Was it tough to get him to commit, given how in-demand he is?

Luckily, he was available when I wanted him and he’s a real great cat: he wanted to do it and he dug playing.  Then, the drummer thing is funny because I wanted to get the same cats on the tour that I’m doing, that are on the record—luckily I got George for most of the tour—but there are a couple drummers down there that I really love that I couldn’t get to commit to doing the tour, so I imported a drummer from San Francisco, Ricky Fataar (actually he’s from South Africa), a great great drummer. So I was lucky to get him, he really wanted to do it and agreed to come out on tour. So that’s the basic quartet.

Then one of the drummers I couldn’t get to go out this summer because he plays with Preservation Hall Jazz Band is drummer Shannon Powell, who ended up playing tambourine on the record. And you know that’s a really important element in gospel music; he swings his ass off and played drums on one of the tracks. Turns out Ricky starts out again with Bonnie (Raitt) in August so I’m going to get Shannon to come out and play with us in August, so that’s going to be good. Shannon was a big part of this record with his tambourine playing

And you’ve got another vocalist too?

Yes, he’s a wonderful singer from New Orleans, who’s always on the scene there. The guy who co-produced the record with me, Mark Bingham, who owns Piety Street Studios, turned me on to John Boutte and it’s great to have his vibe in there too.

So you got the band together and now it’s down to choosing the tunes…

Yeah and like I said I’ve been a gospel fan and plus my friend Siegel has been feeding me gospel music for twenty years as an aficionado, so I had all these records and I just went through them and listened to all these sides and picked the ones I fell in love with, then asked Cleary and Boutte, ”Which ones of these do you want to sing?” Then the couple instrumental tunes I just wrote in the spirit of gospel music:  they’re very much ‘stolen’ from the gospel tradition.

One of the things that struck me as I listened to the music and read your comments on the songs was how deeply influential gospel music has been on country music.

Your comment on country music was dead on. Most people know “I’ll Fly Away” from “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and that’s the country version. And we did a kind of countrified version, but it’s also a song that they play in New Orleans at jazz funerals: they play it on the way home in an up-tempo version. Like “When The Saints Go Marching In.”  It’s also originally a gospel tune, so there’s a country tradition to it and there’s also a gospel way. It’s great how those songs overlap: that song we play “His Eyes is on the Sparrow,” we completely rearranged it and reggae-fied it; it’s originally a turn of the century English hymn that turned into a gospel tune. It’s amazing how so many of these tunes were picked up by the African-American church and changed. And that’s the thing: this folk-loric stuff evolves.

This song “Angel of Death” has lyrics by Hank Williams?

It’s a Hank Williams tune. That’s where I heard it, on the Hank Williams gospel records.

You feel like you’re taking people to school when you go out and play this stuff?

A little bit yeah and that’s sort of weird. But I’m a music freak… junkie…nerd (laughs). I want to know about the history and I always have, so if people can go back to the original versions or hear these songs as they were done by the great gospel artists, I’d be really happy.

That’s one of the great things about the album. I don’t think I’m going to be alone in going to find other versions of these songs just to compare to how you did them. I think anyone who genuinely loves music finds any kind of music they encounter just absolutely fascinating. If they have any inkling where the roots of this music are, you’re doing them a great musicological favor. If they know you or even if they don’t: “John Scofield doing gospel music?—who is this guy?”

I came at it from a secular place. I’m not a member of any one religion, I’m not a non-believer, but I’m not a Christian.

Do you expect to get questions about this project as you publicize it?

I’m coming at it from a music geek, soul music fan point of view. But the spirit of this music is so intense, it has honesty, direct from the soul thing that I just love.

It does. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive in that I knew there were vocals on the album and I’d like to hear you play more, but then I got to hear Cleary sing and I thought “Well, this is something really different, so where does John fit in here?” It was interesting how you regularly introduced the tracks playing guitar, then the vocals come in, and it’s all of a piece.

Sometimes I play it first, I’m the first singer, then they sing the words. Part of that is from the blues, like BB King who would first play his guitar for a long time and then sing. But it’s also like big band music like on records by Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw, they would have vocals–and Duke Ellington too—they would have vocals; there would be a whole big band treatment before the song came in.

Sort of like an intro for the vocalist: they walk on stage “Here they are!” and the spotlight hits them and there they go.”

And it’s almost like the voice is just another instrument that’s part of this bigger orchestral piece.

That’s probably why they call the human voice the greatest musical instrument. It’s got the most versatility. If the voice is good and the singer’s good…

And with these singers…these guys inspire me to play. I love to hear them because it inspires me to play a little more directly and simpler, I hope.

I noticed listening to your playing on the album, it seems like there’s a different kind of warmth to your playing—not that it hasn’t always contained a kind of heat—and it’s much more fluid. Do you think it came from the source of the music or the players? It’s probably a combination of both.

First of all I’m trying to play the blues, not a whole billion bunch of notes, like jazz guys play. And secondly, I’m trying to play lyrically: I’m trying to play like a singer on the guitar. Less is more.

You had the band over in Europe last fall if I have the timeline right…

We recorded the record in September/October, then we went on tour in November.  It went really well. We had a month long tour and those guys had a blast. They’re great and we got to really know each other as a band and as people. It was really nice.

Did the audiences express some surprise or dismay with what they heard?

I think they were a little surprised and in some cases they didn’t understand why I was doing that, but in most cases (they) really went for it. Everybody’s trying to figure out what everything is: “That’s jazz, that’s not jazz—wait a minute what is that?” Some jazz fans really get into some specifics for what they will or will not accept.

Aren’t you the guy that first used the phrase “jazz police” to me?

The phrase has been around for a while (laughs).

Did the recording of the album go pretty quickly or did you have to labor over the arrangements?

I kind of labored over them on my own a little bit. This record didn’t use written notation, we only used chord charts so that was good. It was more organic.  We just had to learn the arrangements.

That must’ve been kind of a fun way to learn it.

More of the R&B way as averse to the jazz way and I thought the music can benefit from learning the music on the spot. I figured out what I thought the arrangements ought to be, what I thought would be good. The singers had to learn the words in advance, but we pretty much put it together in the studio in four days. It’s mostly a couple takes on each tune–we didn’t do much more than that– and some of the tunes are first takes.

Was everybody in the band familiar with most of the material?

A lot of them were, guys like George and Cleary and Boutte, know more about gospel music than I do in a way and played some of that. But a lot of them were different versions that I chose because I changed some of the chords and changed the groove so we had to learn them.

You’re doing to go on the road with the band this summer. I presume you’re going to do the regular jazz festival circuit, but I wondered if you were going to do some different gospel venues.

Nobody’s called yet! None of the mega-churches have called to do the gig, but I’m not averse to doing any of that.

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