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John Scofield's New Twist on Traditions

April 18, 1993|ZAN STEWART | Zan Stewart is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Listen to John Scofield's latest album, "What We Do," and you'll hear a world of modern music, from mainstream and free-form jazz to influences of sizzling blues, subtle rock and country.

Scofield is one of the key figures on today's jazz scene. His knack for blending diverse elements has resulted in fresh, new-flavored music that is alternately direct, obscure, open, dense and that sits solidly on jazz's cutting edge.

Scofield, who leads his critically acclaimed quartet Tuesday through next Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, isn't much on defining what he plays. "I guess you might as well call it 'jazz,' but that word doesn't mean much anymore," he says in a telephone interview from Williamsburg, Va. "But, yes, we do pay homage to a number of traditions."

True. The guitarist's intriguing, beguiling originals mix aspects of jazz's past and its present in a manner that emphasizes melody while cultivating invention and spontaneity.

"I was fascinated by Ornette Coleman," explains Scofield, 41, referring to the revolutionary alto saxophonist who practically single-handedly ushered in the free jazz movement in the late '50s. "I love the idea of playing free."

Free playing--where the musicians take great liberties with either a tune's chord progressions or its rhythmic structures--enters into almost every Scofield rendition.

But Scofield also says he loved the concept of Louis Armstrong: "I feel there's a definite line from what's he doing to what I'm doing.

"I like forms that are flexible, that can let you feel creative," says the musician, whose tone can be charged like a live wire shooting sparks or just quietly glowing. "I could never play (an intricate tune like Coltrane's) 'Giant Steps' real well. But something like the blues, you get so you know it so well you can play free."

The corps of Scofield's fans continues to expand. Last year, he won both the International Critics and Readers Poll in Down Beat magazine for not only best electric guitarist--topping perennial winner Pat Metheny in both polls--but also No. 1 electric jazz band.

The guitarist has been recording as a leader since the mid-'70s. Seventeen of his albums--documenting his early jazz/fusion period as well as his current expressive, multi-genre stance--are in print on the Gramavision, Enja and, most recently, Blue Note labels. The artist also works regularly, making 120 dates a year in both jazz rooms and festival settings.

Scofield, who has performed with Miles Davis, Billy Cobham and Gerry Mulligan, says he won't know if the latest tunes he's written work or not until they get tried out on the bandstand. "It's one thing to sit at home and write a piece with your guitar, and quite another to have it performed by four people," he says. "For me, it's always trial and error."

And composing can be murderous. "I have to work at tunes to get them to come out. Sometimes I'll sit there for four or five hours and get absolutely nothing," admits Scofield, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music. "But I find if I write for a steady period, say a month, then it comes easier."

The guitarist says that in his colleagues--saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Dennis Irwin and drummer Bill Stewart--he has found ideal partners who aim to make the music grow with each performance. "The sound that Joe and I have together has a life of its own," he says.

Indeed, there is an uncanny, almost telepathic connection between the guitarist and Lovano, who often stand in front of their rhythm partners and exchange brief phrases with a give-and- take, conversational flow.

"We have never tried to develop that. It just happened right from the start," says Scofield, an Ohio native who now lives in Manhattan. "A lot of this has to do with Joe's love of playing spontaneously, and my love of his playing. A guy inspires you. That either happens or it doesn't."

The Scofield quartet's trip through Los Angeles may be its last for some time. In September, Lovano plans to tour, leading a band consisting of Tom Harrell on trumpet, Anthony Cox on bass and Billy Hart on drums. Scofield's response to this shift is refreshingly open.

"This band is not over," he says simply. "Joe, Bill, Dennis and I will continue to do stuff. We just won't be showing up every six months. The change is only natural. It's really good to be forced to get away and try something else, find something that's exciting."

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