Hush now

John Scofield has gone quiet. He's swapped his electric jazz guitar for a nylon-stringed acoustic. With mellow, Gil-ish results. By Phil Johnson
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The Independent Culture
John Scofield's guitar normally burrs with the sound of raw electricity running along bare wires, the strings crackling and popping as if charged with a particularly primitive power source, and the current further distressed through what he calls his "cheap and nasty" choice of foot pedals. It's a sound that, allied to a peerless technique and a talent as a composer of contrastingly delicate tunes, has made Scofield the most celebrated jazz guitarist of his generation (he's 45). His album Time On My Hands for Blue Note in 1991 remains one of the best jazz records of the decade, and he has since gone on to work in a variety of contexts, from funky jazz with Herbie Hancock to classical crossovers with Mike Gibbs and Mark Anthony Turnage. Essentially, he plays jazz guitar with a rock sound, and has done since he saw Jimi Hendrix as a student at Berklee at Boston in the late Sixties. And while Scofield's sound is unapologetically electric (especially when compared to the semi-acoustic school that for years dominated jazz guitar playing), he plays real jazz and not jazz-fusion, in spite of his post-Berklee experience as a sideman with You're Under Arrest-era Miles Davis and Tony Williams.

Now, for Quiet, the first album of his new Verve contract; Scofield has temporarily abandoned the electric guitar for a nylon-stringed acoustic, and written a set of mellow orchestral arrangements for his own tunes, complete with French horn parts, that recall the tonal textures of the late Gil Evans, the most abiding jazz influence for both Gibbs and Turnage.

Though the change in style is at first quite shocking, the album is, appropriately, quietly effective, demonstrating Scofield's prowess as a composer as much as a soloist. "I guess I was looking for something different," he says. "Especially for an album which is more romantic; I hate the word romantic but it's not quite ballads as some of the tunes have a tempo to them. I'd had a nylon-stringed guitar lying around since someone gave my daughter one years ago, and I would always pick it up; and when I played with Miles Davis he would have me play his own Ovation with nylon strings. He would say, 'That's your sound', so I thought it's something I should use. There's lots of things I can't get on it, like volume and power and sustain, but for melodic playing it inspires me."

The music of Gil Evans has been particularly close to Scofield since he first heard the classic arrangements for Miles Davis on the orchestral Columbia albums (now collected in a six-CD boxed-set by Sony), and he once lived in the same apartment building as the arranger. "He never gave me a music lesson, but just from checking him out with Miles and playing in his band at Sweet Basil's on Monday nights, I got a lot from him. I never thought to copy Gil, but for the album I picked the instrumentation he brought to jazz, using the French horns, the flugelhorn and the flutes for that lush, mellow sound. I just grew up with his sound and it came out sort of Gil-ish, but, you know, how couldn't it?"

After arranging the music on Quiet for a small orchestra, Scofield would like the opportunity of scoring for a real big band, but finding time to do the orchestrations for the album while continually away on tour proved difficult. "It took me so long to write the arrangements that I felt I came through a war," he says. "I can see how arrangers go crazy. I used to see Gerry Mulligan and he always used to complain about having to orchestrate; he said that when he had a deadline he would become physically ill, and real arrangers like him are good at all the technical stuff. There are stories about arrangers in the old big band days who would do all the parts without even writing out a score - they would keep the whole thing in their heads. I'm just a guitar player, but also I compose. But hey, it would be nice to be a composer, then I could stay home instead of being out there whacking away all the time!"n

'Quiet' by John Scofield is available on Verve CD. As part of the Oris London Jazz Festival, Scofield and his quintet play the RFH, London SE1, 14 Nov in a double-bill with the Michael Brecker Quartet. Booking: 0171- 960 4242