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John Scofield: Funk Finds Its Swing

When I write a tune -- and it's been like this for many years -- I always hear in the back of my head some sort of vague, orchestrated, fully fleshed-out big-band version of the song with other parts going on.

Nowadays, guitarist John Scofield is largely known for his funky side. He's worked on the fringes of jazz-rock and released discs incorporating the dense grooves of Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as members of Sex Mob and Soul Coughing. A recent Scofield album paid tribute to soul man Ray Charles.

But Scofield developed his chops by playing with the likes of Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus. His new CD, This Meets That, finds Scofield largely back in his swing element. It features the other members of what he calls his "A-Team" trio — bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart — plus a hard-blowing four-piece horn section.

"We covered some kind of rock tunes," Scofield says, "and there are other tunes that are kind of funky. But I think the swing feel wins out for the majority of the music."

John Scofield spoke with Liane Hansen about his new album, and brought out his guitar for a special solo performance.

On This Meets That, Scofield used the opportunity to bring to life some songs which aren't particularly associated with jazz — for example, "House of the Rising Sun," popularized by The Animals.

"It's one of these anthems that everybody learns when they're learning to play the guitar, and I did in 1960-whatever when it came out," Scofield says. "It turns out kids today still learn that four-chord progression when they're just picking up the guitar."

Guitarist Bill Frisell makes a guest appearance on the song, despite his initial apprehension. "We were talking about that as we recorded it, 'cause I said I wanted to do this, and he says, 'Oh, you've got to be kidding,'" Scofield says. "And then we both realized, you know, that it was almost the first song either of us had ever learned."

Scofield also used the record to expand the size of his ensemble, something he says he's always wanted to do.

"When I write a tune — and it's been like this for many years — I always hear in the back of my head some sort of vague, orchestrated, fully fleshed-out big-band version of the song with other parts going on," Scofield says. "And I never really get to get to that really often because I'm usually playing with trios and quartets on the road, you know, for economic reasons, too."

Not that Scofield abandons the highly groove-oriented jams which have won him acclaim in recent years. He dedicates one tune called "Heck of a Job" to the New Orleans funk band The Meters, a group which led him to see the entire diaspora of New Orleans music.

"The Meters are, I think, the most influential group in our time to come out of New Orleans, to have changed and introduced us all to a way of playing, and to a groove and a level of feel in playing funk-jazz," Scofield says.

Scofield left NPR with a solo performance of "Behind Closed Doors," a tune written by country artist Charlie Rich. Though the music of Rich doesn't enter most jazz fans' minds, Scofield says that he draws inspiration from the vocal phrasing of older country music in his improvisation.

"Everybody thinks country is this, soul music is this, jazz is this, folk music is this, and they all take on these social groups and whatever," he says. "But I just always loved that song, and I always loved roots-country music — people like Charlie Rich."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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