If you plan to be onstage with Phil Lesh, the former Grateful Dead bassist, you better be willing to travel to some pretty strange places — musically speaking — at any moment, guitarist John Scofield said.
“The thing is, he wants the music, at any time that we feel like it, to go completely free,” Scofield told the Advocate. “He’s kind of dedicated to that, and nothing will throw him. He wants us to fuck up the tunes. It’s like a philosophical stance. It’s incredible: There’s no other rock star I’ve ever met who wants to do that.”
That type of situation might stress another musician out (“Am I doing this right?”). But not Sco, 61, who’s embraced structured chaos his whole career. After dropping out of the Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, he launched his solo career while also gigging and recording with Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Gary Burton, Billy Cobham and George Duke. He joined Miles Davis’ band in the 1980s for three notable Columbia records (Decoy, Star People and You’re Under Arrest). He’s released an album of his own just about every year between 1977 and 1996, each packed with slippery, harmonically intricate, driving compositions, soulful ballads and Sco’s trademark tone. As the jazz world was arguably struggling for direction in the 1990s, Scofield became — along with Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and a few others — one of the few elite jazz-fusion guitarists to break through to a wider audience.
By 1995, however, improvisational music was dosing the mainstream. Even as the Grateful Dead stopped touring in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death, the jamband scene was exploding: the Allman Brothers were touring and recording, Phish became one of the biggest bands in the world, Blues Traveler and Dave Matthews were on the radio, and a host of post-Dead spin-offs featuring original band members emerged. Scofield heard groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, who were combining New Orleans rhythms, gospel and swinging organ-jazz textures, and his future direction took shape.
“When I started to hear what MMW was doing, I said, ‘I know about that. That’s funk!’” Scofield said. “I’ve made my life doing that, and it’s combined with a kind of free jazz, which I thought was cool.” Sco collaborated with MMW on 1996’s A Go Go; Bump (2000), recorded with his own jam-style group, got even funkier and more outside. “Even though I’m a quote-unquote jazz musician, I felt very familiar with the whole thing, because I heard the Grateful Dead at their first show in New York in 1967, which I didn’t realize was their first show in New York until Phil Lesh told me it was. It just seemed natural to me, even though I’m not from that scene.”
This weekend, Scofield returns to the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport for the fourth time in the festival’s history (he played in 1999, 2000 and 2005). On both Friday and Saturday nights he’ll join Phil Lesh & Friends, the festival’s headlining act; his own band, Uberjam, takes the stage on Friday afternoon.
Uberjam recently released Deux, a follow-up to their 2002 self-titled Verve Records debut. “It felt really fun and exciting to play,” Scofield said, when asked about the vibe during the Uberjam sessions late last year. “And thrilling, because we had all this stuff we could do, and we hadn’t played for awhile... We played some of the old tunes, and it was like, ‘Holy shit, this is great!’... We just got off on doing it.”
Leading up to the first Uberjam record, Scofield said, the band had jammed on tunes and grooves; cool stuff would happen, and Scofield would go out and rewrite that. This time around, he worked from grooves and textures already recorded by rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick, who played in San Francisco-based Afrobeat groups years ago.
“[Bortnick] just let me have at his tunes, change them, add sections,” Scofield said. “We had never worked together like that, the two of us... I took Avi’s tunes, which were really developed Afrobeat things and sequences he had in the computer, along with his guitar parts and everything. The groove was already there for the songs, and I added melodies. The material somehow is stronger.”
With Lesh, Scofield appeared on Live at the Warfield, a 2-CD/DVD set released in 2006. Despite the freedom built into the music, working with Lesh, Scofield said, involves considerable preparation. “Phil is very nice because he lets me read chord charts onstage,” Scofield said. “I’ve got hundreds of sheets with these chord changes written on them, and I just get them in order, and I’ll listen to them, so I remember, and I have a library of those tunes, because there are, like, 20 different versions of each one, too, from all the Deadheads.”
Apart from following along with the tunes, Scofield said, it’s a no-pressure situation.
“It can be ecstatic when it gets into a thing,” Scofield said. “And I like some of the songs too, a lot, [the ones] that I didn’t know. It’s been great for me to learn to appreciate that music.”
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John Scofield Uberjam, July 26, 4:10 p.m., Gathering of the Vibes, Seaside Park, Bridgeport, gatheringofthevibes.com.