If you catch guitarist-composer John Scofield next week at the Jazz Kitchen, you won't hear the powerhouse funk-jazz that built his reputation in the '70s and '80s, and you won't hear him flogging a new album - there isn't one.
What you will hear is a singular instrumental voice that has grown richer and more nuanced with the years, in a stripped-down format that highlights the interaction with longtime compadres Steve Swallow on electric bass guitar and Bill Stewart on drums.
"The way we play together is a joy," Scofield says in a phone interview. "We've made a bunch of records over the years, and it's really a jazz group. All three of us have our own sounds, and they work together."
Though Scofield's ever-expanding resume is long and varied - from the legendary Miles Davis to jam favorites Medeski, Martin & Wood - this particular trio has been an anchor of sorts for two decades. In fact, Swallow has been a friend and mentor since the early '70s, when he was an established player and instructor and Scofield was a green undergrad at Boston's Berklee College of Music.
"I came from a small town in Connecticut," he says. "I'd only met a few people who even played jazz at all."
Scofield had come to the electric guitar through the conventional baby-boomer route: the British Invasion bands, the transatlantic blues revival and the rise of heavy blues-rock players like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. He recalls the '60s, his teen years, as a time when record labels supported music of all kinds.
"The people I met - who were probably 18-year-olds - the music freaks would be into jazz and country, bluegrass and R&B and Muddy Waters, old blues, whatever. It was all 'cool' music," he says. "Then there was a big blues revival in the '60s, and I was kind of on the front lines of the fans who were into that stuff. It was when white people discovered the real blues, you know?"
In search of the real deal himself, Scofield moved away from rock and probed deeper into the blues, which ultimately led him to jazz.
"Back then, when I would meet the older players, everybody had the ultimate reverence for jazz," he says. "That impressed me, because I was going for something serious when I was a kid. And then when I started to hear jazz, I realized, wow, this music is close to the R&B and blues that I love. And the swing feel of B.B. King, it came from jazz. That whole idea of taking a guitar solo, which I loved when Clapton did that, that came from jazz. And then I started to listen to the music and draw the parallels, and I became a jazz fan and tried to learn the music."
Scofield left Berklee after two years to make his way into the Boston and New York music scenes. He caught some lucky breaks early on, recording a historic Carnegie Hall date with cool-jazz heroes Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and touring with the decidedly funkier Billy Cobham-George Duke band. By the end of the '70s, he had launched a solo career marked by collaborations across the musical spectrum and forays into acoustic and gospel music and who knows what next.
Like other players of the jazz-rock fusion generation - Bill Frisell and Pat Metheney are often mentioned in the same sentence - Scofield is skilled in traditional jazz guitar but has exploded the boundaries by incorporating elements of other forms, most notably the string bending, dissonance and electronic effects more typical of rock and blues guitar.
"I'm in this group of guys who started in the '70s, and we all use effects," he says. "I'm trying to get the guitar to scream, sometimes."
Still, a key juncture in Scofield's career was his three-year stint in the early '80s with Davis, a towering figure since the bop era.
"By the time I played with Miles, he was a super-icon. He was up on Mount Olympus and I was down with the people," Scofield says. "To get to work with him, and see where it was coming from, and also to get his validation, it was a big deal for me. I learned a lot about leading groups of musicians and trying to get the real deal going with improvisation, trying to get to that thing that doesn't happen all the time, when you're playing together and the music takes off, when the sum is greater than the parts."