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For John Scofield, Everything Old Is New Again — Even The Hard Parts

John Scofield's latest album, <em>Past Present</em>, reunites an old quartet for set of tunes steeped in reflection and loss.
Philippe Levy
Courtesy of the artist
John Scofield's latest album, Past Present, reunites an old quartet for set of tunes steeped in reflection and loss.

Jazz guitarist John Scofield has had a pretty remarkable career. Without even finishing music school, he found himself on the Carnegie Hall stage playing with jazz legends Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Then it was on to Miles Davis, his own successful jazz-funk fusion groups, and even greater exposure playing with jam bands. His latest release, Past Present, takes him back to a sound he perfected in the early 1990s — and it's up for two Grammys in 2016.

Scofield didn't come from a particularly musical family, nor was there much music happening in the suburban Connecticut town where he grew up. But he is definitely a product of his place and time: the early 1960s.

"I think music was actually really important to everybody in that generation," he says. "It just was the only thing: If you weren't a high school football player, you were into music. And it was everything to me."

Before he started playing jazz, he had to find it in the bucolic suburbs. Fortunately there was a record store nearby. "And a woman named Sally who worked there, she was a jazz fan and knew all about it and told me what to get," Scofield recalls. "She said, 'Well, you like guitar. You'll like this guy Jim Hall — he's one of the main guys. You'll like Wes Montgomery.' She made me buy these records."

People, it seems, have always been important guides throughout John Scofield's musical journey. From the older musicians who encouraged him to the younger ones he met at college.

Throughout his musical journey, Scofield has kept finding new guides — from the older musicians who encouraged him when he began playing to the younger ones he met at school. One of the latter was saxophonist Joe Lovano, who became his partner in the 1990s quartet that has reunited for the new album.

"John and I both attended Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early '70s," Lovano says. "[We] have been playing together with this kind of approach of sharing the space all along. Listening and following the sound, you know? That's always been happening in our music."

Another of John Scofield's most important guides has been his wife Susan, who helps deal with the business side of music.

"I am more like his assistant, and I get the grubby things to do: answer the phone, put the stamps on the things and just sort of help glue it all together so he can keep going on," she says. "It's proven to be sustaining for us — a family cottage industry, if you will."

Susan came up with the name of her husband's new album, Past Present, and with titles for many of his tunes. She remembers happening on one name while sitting in a club, watching her husband play.

"There was a woman sitting at the table next to us, talking through his entire set," she says. "And at one point, during a pause in the music, the woman said, 'And now she's blonde!' And that's where that tune title came from, right from that rude woman. I just liked the phrase. If you really get desperate, you look up things and you get 'Dance Me Home' or other things that have nothing more to do than words that you like, 'cause John is — this is not his forte."

Playing music is. And so is composing.

"John writes songs," Joe Lovano says. "He doesn't just write, like, little vamps and episodes and things. He writes tunes, you know? There's a lot of things to explore."

To hear Scofield tell it, that process does not come easily. "You only get tunes if you work at it; I can't wait for inspiration," he says. "I have to have a project, and the project makes me have to come up with some music — like, I'll be making a new record and I need a ballad. I don't really compose for fun, ever. I don't ever have the, 'Oh that's a nice melody.' Usually I think, 'Oh gosh, I gotta write some tunes. And I have to write this kind of tune.' And then I can do it."

Scofield says the discipline of writing didn't change for his latest album, but the circumstances of his life did. His son Evan, who had been battling cancer for several years, passed away in 2013.

"He had lived here at home with us during that time, and that's when I wrote these songs that are on the record, most of them," Scofield says. "So, even though I think when you write music, you just write music, when I hear the songs or think of the songs, I know what I was going through, I wasn't thinking about music really. I was thinking about him."

So sometimes, music isn't just about music, it's about people — those who make it and those who inspire it.

"I used to be playing with these guys years ago," Scofield says of the reformed quartet. "Here we are playing again: The past is there but here, we are in the present. And when I think of my son, he's with me in the present, even though he's in the past."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Cole is a senior editor on NPR's Arts Desk. He develops, edits, produces, and reports on stories about art, culture, music, film, and theater for NPR's news magazines Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered. Cole has held these responsibilities since February 1990.