One for the road: John Scofield

Jazz giant John Scofield ponders riotous assemblies and how a toothbrush can save the day...

What was your first ever gig?

“The first time I played publicly was in my sixth grade, aged 12. I accompanied Timmy Cunningham on a rendition of Greensleeves; he sang it, I played guitar. Six months later, our band - one guitar, two accordions and drums - played at a church function. I got about five dollars for the whole band. I couldn’t get my guitar in tune, I remember that!”

Describe your current stage rig…

I have two AS200 Ibanez guitars from the 80s that I use a lot and I’ve been using Fender Deluxes

“It kind of varies… I have different bands. On a lot of straightahead jazz, I’ve actually been plugging straight in. I have two AS200 Ibanez guitars from the 80s that I use a lot and I’ve been using Fender Deluxes. Then I have another setup where, if I want effects, I have a small pedalboard that has three pedals on it: a distortion unit, a tremolo unit and a tuner. 

“If I play with my Überjam Band or when I play with Medeski, Martin and Wood, or this last tour of Europe I did with Brad Mehldau, I have a larger pedalboard that has a number of effects on it. When it’s a louder band, I play through a Vox AC30. That’s pretty much it.”

What’s the nearest you’ve come to a Spinal Tap moment on tour?

“Man, I’ve had so many! I was playing with Billy Cobham. This was 1976, one of my first tours of Europe. There was a big jazz festival in Bologna in Italy and we arrived to play and the other band was Weather Report with Jaco Pastorius on bass. 

“I’ll never forget it. We walked in and Jaco was playing behind his amp, because there was a riot going on. There was a political thing there and they had this huge demonstration that turned into a brawl. So, they’re throwing stuff at the stage and we’re supposed to go on next. 

“Weather Report just stops playing and runs away and gets out of there and the concert is cancelled, but we’re stuck there in the dressing room while the police come in and break up this riot. The road manager actually broke a window so that we could escape.”

What non-musical item could you not do without on tour?

“First thing that comes to mind is a toothbrush. Toothbrush and passport - other than that you can pretty much make it through without anything. I’ve lost my luggage so many times, but I always have my passport and now that I’m an old person I need my medications that I’m supposed to take every day and a toothbrush and my little Kindle, which has replaced reading actual books. I always keep those with me in case everything else gets lost by the airline.”

What’s on your rider?

“Little snacks. Other than that it’s an extensive rider that says all kind of stuff on it: how the place has to be clean, how it has to be a nice hotel… You just hope for the best and we, in jazz, are pretty used to winging it and compromising - but don’t go telling the promoters that!”

What’s the best venue you’ve played in from a musician’s point of view?

“I’ve been so lucky. I’m 64 and I’ve been playing on the road for 40 years, 200 nights a year, so I’ve played a lot of fantastic places. I think if I had to choose then I would think about these opera halls that I have played in Italy like Cremona and, in Perugia, the Teatro del Pavone. I think the small concert hall is great, especially the ones you find in Europe. A lot of them are in the round, so they’re not actually that big, but you can still fit a few hundred people in.”

What’s the worst journey you’ve had to or from a gig?

“We were going to Jakarta in Indonesia for one concert from New York and the travel agent said,‘Okay, you’ll leave on Sunday.’ I knew the gig was on Tuesday so I figured, ‘We leave on Sunday, arrive on Monday.’ No. The flight left at 11pm on Sunday and arrived Tuesday at noon, so we had to fly for 30 hours or something and we stopped in Singapore and Taiwan and Los Angeles and had to wait. We finally get to Jakarta and we’ve got to go straight to soundcheck - that was rough.”

What’s the best tip for getting the audience on your side?

I’m just like the rest of the world - I go to YouTube and watch all this great stuff that’s there!

“Just be yourself. I think people relate to that, you know? We play jazz music, so there’s normally not a vocalist, so it’s a little harder for people to know where you’re at. But if you just talk to them a little bit at some point during the set and they see you are a human being, I think that puts people at ease just because of the human element.”

How do you warm up before a gig?

“I just play the guitar and nothing more than that. I like to play for a couple of minutes. I’ll think about the changes to the first tune just to try to get into it. Other than that I don’t have any method. I think you’ve just got to go in there and hope for the best.”

What’s your favourite live album?

“I’m gonna go way back to when I was a kid and I had a record called BB King Live At The Regal. Most of the records I listen to, in jazz, a lot of them are live and I think even the ones in the studio, the really good ones, are live in that the musicians would just play and they weren’t overdubbing or anything like that and there’s so many in jazz that it’s hard to say.

“Also, do you know what? I’m just like the rest of the world - I go to YouTube and watch all this great stuff that’s there of all my favourite artists.”

John Scofield’s new release, Country For Old Men, is available now via the Decca label.

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