It's a testament to the work ethic and creative restlessness of jazz guitar great John Scofield that his most recent album, Past Present, came out last June and he's already moved on to something else. In fact, he's actually got two more projects in the pipeline before the year is out. And if you look back at his lengthy list of albums and collaborations, you'll find 2015 to be just about average.
Since leaving the Berklee College of Music in the mid-1970s, Scofield has honed a singular style that combines sudden, terse bursts of noise and dazzling, lightning-quick runs across the fretboard. It's an exciting, full-bodied sound that makes the exclamations and explorations coming from his guitar sound almost like a human voice. "I'd be a singer if I could, but I suck at it," Scofield says, laughing. "I can't do it, but I always like that element in jazz instrumentals — not just on my guitar but with horns as well. I like trying to sing the song on the guitar. The guitar has bends and articulations and vibrato that can make it really vocal."
Scofield's singular playing immediately garnered attention from some of the biggest names in jazz, and he spent the late 1970s playing with Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus, and Gary Burton, finding time to put out a self-titled debut album in 1977. He spent much of the early '80s playing with Miles Davis, working with the legendary trumpeter on material that reached past traditional jazz into funk, rock, and pop music.
Scofield restarted his solo career in earnest in 1984, releasing a string of rock–jazz fusion albums throughout the next decade and beginning lengthy collaborations with sax player Joe Lovano and drummer Bill Stewart. But in the late '90s, Scofield began incorporating more funk and soul influences into his work. He recorded an album with groove-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood in 1996 before diving full-steam into electronic dance music in the early 2000s. Since that detour, Scofield has continued to range all over the stylistic map, delving further into electronic experimentation, recording a tribute album for Ray Charles, and, occasionally, returning to straight-ahead jazz.
It was on one of those stylistic excursions that Scofield met New Orleans pianist and singer Jon Cleary, and the seeds were planted for his most recent project. "About seven years ago, I made a record called Piety Street, where I went to New Orleans and recorded with all local musicians," he says. "It was R&B-style stuff, and Jon was the primary vocalist on that record and the tour. I went on after that and did other things, and then a couple of years ago, a band called Soulive from New York was doing a concert series where they invited special guests, and they invited me and Jon to play with them. We hadn't played together in a while, and we were able to play in a duet setting together — just guitar and piano — and it went really well. So we said, 'Let's do a tour.'"
Given Scofield's busy schedule, that was easier said than done. But now, having just finished up a tour with Lovano and Stewart, Scofield is hitting the road with Cleary for a series of duo shows. "We're playing old R&B classics from the '50s," he says. "Not even soul or funk but songs by Little Willie John, Professor Longhair and various R&B artists from that era. Jon is really great at singing that kind of stuff, and I feel really at home playing it."
Scofield says that in some situations, he might have been a little reluctant to strip the music down to just two instruments, but Cleary is an accomplished enough player that he wasn't worried. "This guy is a keeper of the New Orleans piano tradition, from Professor Longhair to James Booker to Dr. John," he says. "He's like a whole orchestra unto himself. And with that kind of a rompin' piano player, it's like a whole band. I'm just playing lead over that. I don't miss the rest of the group."
Cleary's soulful, bluesy vocals were a selling point for Scofield as well, given his approach to guitar playing. "I just love the way this guy sings," he says. "I'm into that, especially in this kind of old-time R&B idiom. It wouldn't make sense to play a lot of fast bebop-type shit over that. You've gotta sing those songs with the guitar and play vocally."
Scofield, who will be 64 in December, says that seeking out different musical projects keeps him creatively energized. "There are all kinds of little things you'll learn from doing one set of music that you'll bring to the next set," he says. "Left to my own devices, I'm kind of just me. But when I have all these other great artists, I can learn their music and be me in a little different way."