Mondays with Morgan: John Scofield (new album ‘Uncle John’s Band’)

Mondays with Morgan is a column in LondonJazz News written by Morgan Enos, a music journalist based in Hackensack, New Jersey. Therein, he dives deep into the jazz that moves him – his main focus being the scene in nearby New York City.

This week, Enos spoke with guitarist and composer John Scofield, whose nearly half-century-long career has seen him collaborate with Miles Davis, Herbie Hencock, Pat Metheny, and many other fellow top-flight practitioners of the music.

Scofield’s new album, Uncle John’s Band, which features bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart, is available now via ECM Records.

John Scofield, Bill Stewart and Vicente Archer all wearing black and facing the camera with a lighter black background

Before you ask: no, sorry, Uncle John’s Band isn’t John Scofield’s out-of-nowhere Grateful Dead tribute album. He’s quick to clarify this in its accompanying minidoc [see video below], and he reiterates it over Zoom, as his lovably noisy dogs vie for his attention behind him.

No, the old Dead chestnut – recorded for their 1970 classic Workingman’s Dead – is but the closer on an inspired 14-song programme which ping-pongs between originals (like “Back in Time”), standards (like “Stairway to the Stars”), and folk-rock classics (like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Neil Young’s “Old Man.”). His name is John, and it’s his band; when it came to pick a title, who among us could resist? But Scofield’s evocation of the tune is far more than a matter of winking self-referentiality.

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Because while Grateful Dead were the ultimate jam band, they were also far more than that. From bluegrass to Buddy Holly, from Dylan to disco, they came to possess a 360° vantage of American musics. Much like a certain, 71-year-old living legend of the jazz guitar.

“The Dead were so exploratory and improvisation-oriented, and I love that about them,” Scofield tells LondonJazz. Like Garcia and company, he sought to transmute rootsy material into an improvisatory context – with his rock-leaning band Yankee Go Home, purveyors of Americana, folk and rock hits imbued with a jazzy tinge.

Their bassist is the revered Vicente Archer [see below for link to Morgan’s full interview with the bassist]; when ECM Records came knocking for a trio album, prodigious drummer Bill Stewart felt like the logical third point of the triangle. “We just needed a bunch of material,” Scofield says matter-of-factly. “No concept, really, other than just all the stuff that we played together that worked.”

Uncle John’s Band doesn’t just work. It feels as natural as breathing – as if Scofield spent a lifetime inhaling Americana, and this is what he eventually exhaled. Read on for an interview with Scofield about how it all happened.

LondonJazz News: Lay the groundwork as to how Uncle John’s Band came to be.

John Scofield: I’ve been playing with Bill Stewart for many years, and Vicente for the last four or five years.

I wanted to make another trio record, because I’ve been playing with those guys a lot. We just ended up playing all these different kinds of music – because we can, you know. They were tunes I liked, and that I had been playing over the years.

LJN: How did you rewire these well-worn tunes into vehicles for improvisation?

JS: Well, they have to work in that way. I have to be able to find a little section of the tune, or a chord progression in the tune, that gives us something to improvise on. But also, I have to really like the song. 

With some of the tunes, like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Uncle John’s Band,” we just take the seed of the chord progression and play freely on it. In other words, we leave the chords. We just listen to each other and go other places in a free jazz way.

And with others – like Neil Young’s “Old Man” – they have a really cool chord progression for just one of the sections of the song. So after we play the song, then improvise over this one little [section].

We stick with that, because – as in this case – it’s an interesting, rhythmic, six-bar phrase that Neil came up with, which is a little different from the normal rock tune.

LJN: Some dismiss standards as long since played out. But I think they’re as fresh as ever, as long as you charge them with imagination and heart. How did you approach the standards on Uncle John’s Band?

JS: You know, it’s more of a feel type thing. If you’ve heard a million guys playing that song over and over again, it might well be a little shopworn. But when you play it, if you feel it, then it works.

As with all these songs on the record, they just spark an interest in me, and in the other guys, so that we want to play it. It’s really almost instinctual.

LJN: Your compositional well runs so deep. Can you talk about your originals on Uncle John’s Band?

JS: I just write, and I hopefully come up with something that works. These are my latest tunes.

Actually, “How Deep” is a little bit stolen, because it’s the chord progression to an old standard called “How Deep is the Ocean,” and then we just mess with it. That’s a standard kind of 32-bar form.

“TV Band” is again something that’s appropriated, because the intro is very similar to a Monkees tune, which was this band that was on TV in the ‘60s when I was a little kid. That’s why I called it that – and then the tune goes to a whole different place.

I tried to bring a diverse selection of tunes so we can make a programme up. I’ve made enough records that I realised, OK, I can’t bring four tunes that are the same exact tempo and feel. On a record, it won’t work. I’ve been around long enough to know that.

LJN: What do you appreciate about Bill and Vicente, and what they bring to the party?

JS: Vicente can really groove. Rhythm is essential to this music, and he’s really rhythmic. So, I need that kind of propulsion from a bass player who understands the bass function.

This all being said, he’s also an experimentalist, and a great melodic player as well. And he loves free improvisation, as well as playing the changes – he plays great solos. He can play funky as hell; he can walk. He swings like crazy. 

And he’s a great guy, and he wants to play with me, and vice versa. So, he’s really a find for me. You know how it is; you just meet people, and you come together, and sometimes it works better than others. And with Vicente, for me, it really works.

Bill Stewart is somebody I’ve been playing with for – my god, over 30 years. He’s just a master jazz drummer. I’ve learned so much from him, even though he’s 15 or 20 years younger than me. I have come to rely on his incredible sense of beat and musicianship.

Now, when we play together as a trio, not only does he keep the groove and have an incredible sound on the drums, and a beautiful tone; he’s able to accent and contribute and dialogue with me and Vicente. So that it’s musical; it’s not just rhythm. He’s like a piano player or something.

I just feel lucky to play with both of those guys. And they make me play well, to tell you the truth. I don’t go for the whole ‘star in front of a faceless rhythm section’ thing. I’ve never been able to make it work that way. I need to play with musicians who are great.

LJN: What’s inspiring you lately on the musical front? What are you listening to that might inform what comes next?

JS: Quite honestly, I listen to old music often, now that we have access to everything on the Internet. I listen to old jazz – stuff from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, the greats. I’m still learning from that. Can’t get away from that; I’m a jazz fan.

But this also goes over into the other elements – whether that be folk, rock, blues, country, whatever. A lot of old stuff. And classical music – which I don’t know that much about; I’ve been on the sidelines for classical music my whole life.

But lately: Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, which is incredibly beautiful, I think. And the slow movements. 

LJN: You mentioned the unfettered access of the Internet age. One of my favourite bits of jazz lore is that Wes Montgomery sat with a guitar, played along with Charlie Christian records, and became… well, Wes Montgomery. For those coming up, I wonder if having access to everything all the time is a double-edged sword.

JS: I was like Wes Montgomery, in that I had a little record player in my room when I was in high school, and I didn’t have that many records, because I didn’t have an unlimited supply of cash. So I had a few jazz guitar player records – Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel – and I just ate them up. I played them ‘til they were worn out.

That’s the way I absorbed music, and I think all of us did, until the Internet. But now, I prefer this, being able to get anything I want. But I do think my younger years were really helped by having limited access, so that I absorbed the stuff I did have.

I wonder what it’s like now for a young person. You can see that it’s great, and that people are learning how to play jazz younger. The technical level is so high for all these young players, man. It’s just amazing.

But I wonder. I think it’s just different. And I’m not sure how this is all going to turn out, but it is going to turn out, because it’s just gonna happen. The Internet is here to stay, and we’re gonna embrace it.

LINKS: Purchase Uncle John’s Band

John Scofield’s website

Mondays with Morgan: Vicente Archer

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