Guitarist John Scofield Embraces Ballads on A Moment’s Peace
New Emarcy album features Larry Goldings, Scott Colley and Brian Blade
A bona fide guitar hero and masterful improviser, John Scofield has covered a wide spectrum of musical styles with rare authority over the last four decades of his celebrated career. From funk and fusion to swinging jazz standards, rockfueled jams, lush orchestral collaborations, earthy blues and old-time gospel music, Scofield has imbued each style with his distinctive six-string voice, earning accolades for his triumphs along the way.
On A Moment’s Peace, his followup to 2009’s gospel-drenched Piety Street, Scofield and his all-star crew of pianist/organist Larry Goldings (James Taylor, Norah Jones, Walter Becker), bassist Scott Colley (Jim Hall, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny) and drummer Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan) luxuriate in ballads associated with such legendary interpreters of song as Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. Included in the collection, Scofield’s third outing on EmArcy, are five new originals by the guitar great, along with soulful interpretations of the lyrical Lennon-McCartney number “I Will” and Carla Bley’s serene “Lawns.”
“It’s an album of slow, gentle music,” says the perennial poll-winning guitarist. “But at the same time, we didn’t want it to be easy listening. We tried to really play on all the tunes. For me, no matter what kind of music, it’s really important that it be fresh and that we’re really playing something. The creativity, when accompanying or soloing, has to be there.”
From sublime renderings of “I Want to Talk About You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You” and “I Loves You Porgy,” Scofield fills each of these timeless gems with an uncommonly expressive approach to his instrument while stretching out in the tradition of the great melodic improvisers. And his highly interactive rhythm section, marked by Colley’s formidable presence on bass, Goldings’ thoughtful orchestrations on both piano and organ and Blade’s sensitive, intuitive touch on the kit, helps make all of these tunes come alive in the moment. Scofield has high praise for his valued sidemen on A Moment’s Peace. “Some guys are interactive in kind of a bulldozer way,” he says. “But Scott, Larry and Brian are all able to be supportive of the music while making their personal contributions. There’s a kind of a magic in that.”
While this session marks the first time that Scofield and Blade have played together on a recording, it’s a reunion of sorts for the other two band members. Bassist Colley played in the guitarist’s touring group during the early 1990s and keyboardist Goldings has had an ongoing musical relationship with Scofield over the years, having appeared on three of his previous recordings -- 1993’s Hand Jive , 1995’s Groove Elation and 2005’s That’s What I Say– and also being a key member of Trio Beyond, with drummer Jack DeJohnette (documented on 2006’s live Saudades). Says Scofield, “I see Larry as one of the great orchestrators. That’s what a keyboard player does when they play with a band. And unfortunately, a lot of keyboard players take it in a direction I don’t necessarily want to go. But I just always agree with Larry’s choices. For me, he’s the perfect guy to play with because we cover a lot of the same bases. He likes to play all the same kind of music I do. And whatever project you have, if you bring him in the room he will add so much to it. It’s the same with Brian. All the guys, in their own way, really enhance the music by the choices they make. And as the leader, you want to trust their instincts. I didn’t have to say one word to anybody on any of this music. We just played the songs.” Regarding the relaxed accord that his empathetic crew strikes on A Moment’s Peace, Scofield says, “These guys can play beautifully and unhurried and really capture the mood of a song. To be relaxed but have it be fresh and energetic…that’s the trick. And I tried to keep the music somewhat simple so everybody could just play. When you have personalities like this, you just let them play and the music comes together in its own way.”
He adds, “It’s the first time I’ve tried to do anything like this since Quiet,” referring to his 1996 Verve album, which focused on soothing melodies played exclusively acoustic guitar. “And I kept the songs short because I wanted the songs to be the thing. We do solo but the interpretation of the songs is our primary goal.” Scofield had these comments on the individual tracks from A Moment’s Peace: “Simply Put” – I wrote this song a few years back. The title says it all….just a simple song, and we got a vibe on it for lack of a better word. It’s a bossa nova. “I Will” -- I was looking for something contemporary…not an old jazz tune or an original by me, but something newer. I was really searching but couldn’t find one. There was a tune by the group Fountains of Wayne that I really liked and another by Elliott Smith, but they didn’t really work as jazz. So finally when I was packing up to go to the session for this album, a chart I had written out ten years ago for the Beatles’ “I Will” fell on the floor in front of me. This was really spooky. I had completely forgotten that I had this and then, in my studio at home where I have piles of music all over the place, it just fell on the floor in front of me. So I just picked it up and brought it along. We swung it a little and it came alive in the studio. I know this song because I got the Beatles White Album for Christmas when I was a kid and played it to death. I listened to the songs so much that I absorbed them. It’s different to play on a song that’s absolutely inside you and you know the words by heart. “Lawns” – Carla Bley is one of the great composers of our time, without a doubt. This tune is from her Sextet album from the mid ‘80s and featured Hiram Bullock on guitar. We played it like a jazz tune even though I think originally she did it more like a straight eighth feel. It’s one of those melodies and chord changes where you can’t stop playing on it. And it has an energy of it’s own. ”Throw It Away” – I love Abbey Lincoln’s music. This is such a great tune and the lyrics just kill me…the message of “don’t hold onto stuff, let it go.” And what a singer! I just relate so much to her phrasing and style. I would like to play guitar the way she sings. In fact on the whole record, and especially on this tune, I tried to be the singer. I wish I could really sing, but trust me, you don’t want to hear me. So instead, I sing these melodies on guitar. Scott Colley’s solo on this tune is a high point on the record for me. “I Want to Talk about You” – That’s probably the most jazzy song on the date and we really stretch on it. John Coltrane’s music has been a big part of my life since my youth. I heard this song when I was probably 16. I think the tenor saxophone and the guitar are so similar in a way. They have the same register, and both instruments can play vocal-like phrases. Coltrane has such a cry…and the guitar has a different kind of cry, I guess. “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You” – Larry Goldings is amazing. That’s one of the greatest solos that he plays on that. Plus, he has a sound on the organ which is like Ray Charles’ on “One Mint Julep” from Genius + Soul = Jazz, where you turn the Leslie off completely and it’s a really flat funky sound. And Larry just kills his solo here. As for myself, I’m just trying to play the blues in the tradition of all the blues guitar giants, from the three Kings (B.B., Albert, Freddie), Johnny Guitar Watson and all the rest. I think one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century was blues played by B.B. King and his isciples. That style of blues guitar playing, it’s almost what the guitar is all about. “Johan” – That’s my tune. It’s “Johan,” as in Johan Sebastian Bach, because the first couple of guitar chords on this melody really remind me of a famous Bach piece. They’re kind of lifted from Bach’s “Gavotte,” which is one of his violin Partitas. I learned it on the guitar in my student days. I wrote this song and then realize that it has similarities. I think I’m cool copyright-wise, but I decided to dedicate it to Johan. “Mood Returns” – The title came from the fact that I was trying to write some songs and nothing was happening, I couldn’t get any mood. And then I wrote this song and it seemed to be happening, so I called it “Mood Returns.” It also reminded me of some pieces I had written 15 years ago…so it’s a return of sorts. Larry and I have such close interplay on this song. We’ve played together so much that any kind of call-and-response is intuitive at this point. Also, I could hear in Brian’s playing a New Orleans groove, a touch of Johnny Vidacovich, who was his mentor in New Orleans.
“Already September” – That’s another original. And I wrote it last September. It’s a jazz tune with challenging chord changes to play on. I really had to practice those for a while. It’s not like “Giant Steps,” but you definitely have to check ‘em out before you do it. Brian’s playing here is really intuitive and Scott’s accompaniment is perfect. These slower pieces leave a little bit more space and so you need to have interaction. When you’re not playing a million notes, everything counts a little more. So there’s room for everybody to color the music. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” – This is one of the most lovely ballads, especially the way Billie Holiday sings it. This is actually the one tune where I dictated an rrangement. On this one, I suggested doing it in a reggae groove. It’s got a dub bass line with a slow Elvin Jones kind of drum part. And Larry plays more or less the chank, the guitar part, on the organ. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone do that before, and it worked. “Plain Song” – It’s another simple song of mine. It starts out country with a little Woody Guthrie element in there. And then we blow on it and it goes somewhere else. It’s definitely folkloric. “I Loves You Porgy” – That’s a really super-loose, abstract version of the famous Gershwin song. It’s rubato but it’s got its own inner rhythm. Don’t bother trying to count it, though. All I did was play the melody and what Larry plays is just coloring around me. And I have a tremelo pedal on for a little different sound on there. And again, the words tune to this just kill me. I hear them when I play it. I love Nina Simone’s version - what a piece of music. It’s just so heart-wrenching when she loves him and says, “Please don’t let them take me away from you.” It’s a tear-jerker, as they say.