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MUSIC: Ventura County | SOUNDS

Crossing the Divide : Jazz guitarist Scofield remains popular in all genres of his chosen musical field.

June 11, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the sometimes fractured, and fractious, world of jazz, musicians can be sequestered in respective categorical corners. Players, even the good ones, who have dabbled in rock and fusion, let alone the dreaded "smooth jazz," aren't invited to the mainstream jazz party, and vice versa.

Somehow, though, this rule of critical thumb doesn't apply to gutsy guitar hero John Scofield, who ranks high in polls and in critical regard despite the fact that he has always incorporated elements from rock, blues, funk, swamp and other idioms into his basically jazz aesthetic. His concept of jazz is broad.

On one hand, it's surprising to find Scofield coming to the Ventura Theater, where he'll make his debut Monday night, in what should easily be one of the highlights of Ventura's jazz year, as part of the tour behind his new Verve release, "A Go Go." Historically, the theater has generally avoided serious jazz musicians in favor of the often superficial musical white winery of smooth jazz.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense: Scofield's new album may well be his most commercially hot property yet in his 20-year recording career. This is thanks, in part, to the album's infectious grooves and soul-jazz heat, and also thanks to the presence of the space-jazz-jam trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood, serving as his backup band. The trio has accrued a huge cult following in the last few years, and its contributions no doubt have helped expand Scofield's audience base.

Meanwhile, Scofield's reputation is stronger than ever in conventional jazz circles, including the international jazz festival circuit. In July, he will be a toast of the highly regarded Montreal Jazz Festival, performing in eight concerts with musical partners including Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Toots Thielmans and his own current funk-ish outfit, including such longtime cohorts as organist Larry Goldings and the witty drummer Bill Stewart.

So, when the band comes to town Monday, it is capable of serving up steamy rhythms and improvisational detours to match Scofield's signature blend of saucy riffing and sophisticated ideas. He spoke on the phone from his family home in Connecticut last week.

*

"A Go Go" represents a rediscovery of the funk-maker in you, doesn't it?

It does. It's a new, different version of it. I decided, after a few years of not doing it, that I wanted to go all-funk.

*

Did you go at this project in a concerted way, writing all the tunes with the album in mind?

I wrote all the tunes after I found out that Medeski, Martin and Wood wanted to play with me. I called them up and said 'Hey, I'm a fan. Would you want to get together?' They said, 'Yes, we'll be back in New York in 10 days.' Then I sat down and wrote seven out of the 10 songs as little sketches.

*

Did you intentionally downplay the writing, and keep from making the tunes too complex?

Yeah, I wanted it to be stuff that we could just play right away, something that we could catch a groove on and feel good about it. Plus, I'm just more and more fascinated by simple songs--simple songs that hopefully aren't trite, that say something.

*

This new album has a potential to reach a lot wider audience than you're accustomed to. Did you expect that?

I never expect that anymore. It's a nice surprise. I've made all these records where I think 'God, everybody would like that, wouldn't they?' and then it stays in the jazz realm. I knew there was a buzz about Medeski, Martin and Wood. I also knew that this stuff was the most funky, in a way, that I've played in 10 years. So those elements should make it be more popular . . . .

And we've been playing for hippies. It's really nice. . . . These young kids are really listening, dancing along and into the music.

*

Hearing you play recently, I thought I detected some influence of Medeski in your playing, with your use of abstraction and new textures. Is that possible?

I've been influenced by Medeski and this whole scene of people playing electronic instruments from a jazz point of view. I feel good about myself when I play in this idiom. I don't feel overly analytical, like sometimes I do in the straight-ahead jazz idiom. I feel like I can just stretch out more.

*

Looking at your whole discography, it's had this nice evolution. It never seems like you're just cranking out albums on demand. Each one has its purpose and concept. Was that your plan from the outset?

I hope I don't just crank it out, but at some point, it might be more like that than it is now. But I've been lucky in that I've changed styles a lot. If I was just on my own, I might have made 10 versions of each album. My wife is my manager. She thinks about that. The record company actually wants me to do different stuff.

On one hand, this is the reason that people can't be like Miles and make five Miles Davis Quintet albums in two years. But, it has allowed me to explore a bunch of different areas that I want to go in. So each album has been different from the previous one. . . . I have a few bags that I want to get into. But I keep hoping that I don't run out of stuff and start repeating myself, which is a danger.

BE THERE

John Scofield, Monday at 8 p.m. at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St. Tickets are $20. (805) 653-0118.

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