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The Ultimate Sideman Takes Center Stage

May 15, 1986|ZAN STEWART

Until now, contemporary guitarist John Scofield has been what might be called "the ultimate sideman." His substantial career includes engagements and LPs with Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan and Billy Cobham.

Now, after 10 years of stints with other people's bands and 15 solo tours of Europe, he's leading his own newly formed quartet in his first U.S. tour (he appears Friday and Saturday at the Palace Court). Why the wait?

"It's been easier for a New York-based musician like myself to travel to Europe," Scofield, 34, said over the phone from a Kansas City, Kan., tour stop recently. "There's more interest in the music over there than in the States. But now, with plane fare deregulation, it's so inexpensive to fly that it's a lot easier to travel to places, say, in the midwest or California."

Another reason Scofield hasn't toured here is that he's spent most of the last 10 years working with people like Gary Burton, the Cobham/George Duke group and Davis (he spent 1982-85 delivering searing chords and wild, convoluted lines in the trumpeter's jazz/fusion combo).

This latter experience had its high and low points.

"Playing with Miles certainly made me a better musician," he said. "He set a fine example on the bandstand. On a good night he could conceive of an hour's worth of music, rather than just the next chorus. He's a master architect."

Davis is also a tough customer, as Scofield found out. "I'm not going to say that working with Miles was easy," he said. "For example, he'd be supportive personally then tear up my playing in an interview. He's been a star for so long, he's definitely into living up to his image. But getting to be a part of Miles' music greatly outweighed any negatives I might have experienced."

Scofield left Davis in 1985 and his bandleading career finally headed into gear. His second Gramavision LP, "Still Warm," received a positive response on radio. Besides, there weren't "a lot of people in the jazz/fusion area that I wanted to work with," so it became an apropos time to form a band.

Scofield found ideal musical complements in keyboardist Mark Cohen, drummer Ricky Sebastian and bassist Gary Grainger. "I wanted to start a group with guys willing to make a commitment to rehearsing and going out and hitting the road," he said. "That's the only way a band gets together, and for us, it's starting to pay off. We're now getting to those (musical) places that you find when you've been together that you never find if you don't play that much."

The leader's compositions form the bulk of his new band's repertoire. He finds his tunes, which might be described as "jazz/fusion but with the spirit of Charlie Parker still there," bring out his unique qualities. "If I play a standard, I find myself sounding like Jim Hall," he said." But when I play my own tunes, I don't sound like John MacLaughlin. I have to put myself in situations where I can get away from my original idols."

Interested in music as a child, Scofield, who was raised in Wilton, Conn., started playing guitar at 11, inspired by seeing Ricky Nelson on TV and by hearing the Beatles. "My first instrument was a rented one that was so hard to play, I'm amazed I kept going," he said.

The lanky guitarist joined his first band at 12, and at 13, he discovered blues greats such as B. B. King. Next came jazz, and four men--Jim Hall, Django Reinhardt, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery--were Scofield's initial influences.

In 1970, Scofield attended Berklee College of Music in Boston and began emulating non-guitarists. "Almost all the guitarists there were playing the same kind of old-fashioned licks, and no one was playing modern like Miles and (saxophonist) Wayne Shorter." It was the mixture of early idols, like Hall, and later ones, like Miles, that Scofield blended into the style he presents today.

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