John Scofield Gets Musical Bump From Rockers

New CD finds guitarist backed by members of Deep Banana Blackout, Soul Coughing ... and some actual jazz players.

Could John Scofield have replaced Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead?

The question is not as odd as it seems.

"I wasn't that familiar with the Dead," Scofield, 49, said recently. "Just a few weeks ago, I was invited out to San Francisco just to jam with [Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh. I was out there for two days, playing Grateful Dead tunes, and then we would go into very free improvisation. I was surprised by his commitment to real musical freedom. He's an amazing musician, and I would love to play with him in one shape or form. If I am needed for a Phil and Friends gig, I'd love it."

The jazz guitarist has been keeping some other unusual company lately. His new Verve record, Bump, features members of Deep Banana Blackout and Soul Coughing and in general reflects Scofield's experience jamming with the Zen Tricksters, Gov't Mule, Ratdog and other groups that reside in the same jam-band genre as the Dead and Phish.

"When I made A Go-Go, the [1997] record with Medeski, Martin & Wood, that was kind of my return to some form of jazz-rock," said Scofield, who had played fusion in one of Miles Davis' '80s lineups. As a result, the guitarist started getting gigs at jam-band festivals.

"I would hear these groups and realized that there is some creative music happening out here. I didn't know there was all this good stuff in this scene. It was great that I heard this stuff and was thrown in with them," Scofield said.

Creativity Through Collaboration

The Bump tune "Three Sisters" (RealAudio excerpt), which features Deep Banana Blackout members David Livolsi on bass and Eric Kalb on drums, may sound familiar.

"I was playing with Eric and Dave one day at my house, liked what I improvised so I made the melody of the tune from it," Scofield says. "Afterwards, Dave said he was playing the bassline to 'Yes You Can Can,' from a Pointer Sisters record. It's an Allen Toussaint song, so I asked about the tune when I was in New Orleans during a session with (organist) John Medeski, Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste and their bassist, George Porter." Porter revealed that it was he who invented, and first played, the bassline.

The other rhythm section on Bump consists of MMW's Chris Wood sharing bass duties with Tony Scherr, along with Kenny Wollesen on drums and Mark De Gli Antoni, on loan from Soul Coughing.

"I'm a Soul Coughing fan and have their records and realized it was Mark who was adding their ambience, so I called him," Scofield says.

On the Bump tune "Fez" (RealAudio excerpt), Scofield creates a sitar-like drone with his guitar that would be appropriate for a movie scene set in a casbah.

"It's got kind of a 'Walk Like an Egyptian' thing to it, I guess," Scofield said, referring to the mid-'80 Bangles pop hit.

The Scofield Sound

He still uses his original Ibanez guitar from 1981, plus a distortion box and a chorus box turned all the way up, resulting in Scofield's signature "underwater" sound.

"I guess I got lucky with my sound," Scofield says. "Pat [Metheny] really has that guitar-synth thing down, and I have my thing and, yes, Jerry does by and large own the envelope-filter sound. That fat, bubbly thing."

Scofield sees his acceptance in the jam-band world and vice-versa as healthy.

"In the States, this type of jam-band phenomena has opened it up for groups to improvise, admittedly more in the groove area, as opposed to the straight-ahead jazz thing — which is good for me, as that's one part of where I'm at. It's been so great playing these gigs and seeing kids come out and the whole college scene."

Scofield says that younger people must have access to jazz for it to survive, and he welcomes the opportunity to play in venues not traditional for jazz.

"The jazz clubs wind up having only rich tourists — the kids can't come. If they do, then they spend their entire monthly allotments on a 45-minute set. Creative music isn't just for older folks, right?"

Straight-Ahead Roots

Scofield hasn't abandoned his straight-ahead jazz roots. He just led a session that he describes as down-home swinging, with drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Brad Mehldau and alto player Kenny Garrett that's set for release next year.

Scofield is also on the road for an extended set of dates featuring various musicians.

"Were doing some shows with Chris Wood and Mark from Soul Coughing. We are also playing with Ben Perowsky, an incredible drummer who plays with everybody.

"I'm using Jesse Murphy from the Bloomdaddies on bass, and for the first time, a rhythm guitar — a guy named Avi Bortnick from San Francisco. He's the killin'est rhythm cat on the earth. He has a real funk thing going on. Lots of possibilities."

John Scofield tour dates:

March 29; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Ziggy's

March 30; Atlanta, Ga.; Center Stage

March 31; Falls Church, Va.; State Theatre

April 1; Towson, Md.; Recher Theatre

April 4; Bloomington, Ind.; Mars, with Derek Trucks

April 5; Chicago, Ill.; House of Blues with Derek Trucks

April 6; Pontiac, Mich.; Mill Street Entry

April 7; Indianapolis, Ind.; Jazz Kitchen

April 8; Minneapolis, Minn.; Quest with Derek Trucks

April 9; Cleveland, Ohio; T Odeon

April 11;, Lawrence, Kan.; Liberty Hall with Derek Trucks

April 12; Boulder, Colo.; Fox Theatre,

April 13;, Englewood, Colo.; Gothic Theatre

April 14; San Juan Capistrano, Calif.; Coach House with Charlie Hunter

April 15; Los Angeles, Calif.; USC's Bovard Auditorium, with Charlie Hunter

April 16; San Diego, Calif.; TBA

April 17; Tucson, Ariz., Rialto Theatre, w/Charlie Hunter

April 19; Tahoe City, Calif.; Humpty's Cafe,

April 20; Portland, Ore.; Aladdin Theatre

April 21–23; Seattle, Wash.; Jazz Alley

April 24; Eugene, Ore.; University of Oregon, EMU Ballroom

April 25; Victoria, British Columbia; Legends

April 26; Vancouver, British Columbia; Vancouver East Cultural Center

April 29; Berkeley, Calif.; Zellerbach Auditorium

April 30; Sacramento, Calif.; Marlowe

May 1; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Kuumba Jazz