Guitar great John Scofield talks to Graham Reid about a shining career that has seen him play with some musical legends

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Sad but true, admits jazz guitarist John Scofield. When he gets together with his peers, like Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, they do get guitar-nerdy and the ladies are long gone by that point.

"There's an unspoken code between us for sure, but we're geeks like everybody else. We talk about pickups, strings and picks and all that same stupid music stuff we've all gone through our whole lives.

"And if somebody plays something there's nothing wrong with asking, 'How did you do that?'"

Not that you'd think anyone could teach Scofield, 56, much when it comes to playing guitar. A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, he has played with jazz greats such as trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, recorded with Charles Mingus, and in 1982 joined Miles Davis's band to play sky-scaling rock licks and low-down funk on albums such as Star People, You're Under Arrest and Decoy.

He has also had an illustrious recording career under his own name - more than 20 albums since 1977 - and it would an unwise person who tried to pigeonhole him: he has played fusion and funk, pure blues and classic jazz, collaborated with the avant jazz outfit Medeski Martin & Wood, did a tribute album to Ray Charles, has album tracks with titles like The Beatles and is quite at home with drum 'n' bass.

"I understand that classic jazz needs to be recognised as an art form that had great periods in the 40s, 50s and 60s. I love it too, but that's not all there is. I've done a lot of different stuff ...

"But it might not be [comfortable] for Wynton Marsalis," he says, citing the figurehead of the 80s neo-conservative movement in jazz, "but that's partly because he's a trumpet player.

"But an electric guitar fits in with that electronica music really well. I like to play a lot of pedals, and I dig it."

Given Scofield's wide range of musical interests, it comes as little surprise that his current project is different again: he's finishing off an album of gospel songs recorded in New Orleans with a band that includes keyboard player Jon Cleary and drummer Ricky Fataar (both seen in New Zealand touring with Bonnie Raitt) and award-winning New Orleans singer John Boutte.

With that band - Piety Street, named after the studio's address - Scofield expects to tour next year, when he isn't out with his long-standing trio (with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart), or playing dates with his old saxophonist friend Joe Lovano, with whom he appears at Auckland's Labour Weekend Musical Bonanza.

"Joe's just a force of nature and is always going to play great every night, Scofield says.

"He swings so hard, and gets some beautiful sounds, he's so melodic but also so rhythmic. When he plays the music starts to swing no matter what.

"We both started out at Berklee together in about 1972 and I loved his playing when I first heard him and I still do ... he's someone who has really inspired me."

Says Lovano: "There's a trust we have together, and how we can share ideas and give each other room to try to say something in the music, and that certain trust and focus is important.

"He's not just playing the guitar and I'm not just playing the saxophone. I'm trying to get into what he wants to be playing and he's trying to get into what I'm playing."

Scofield and 55-year-old Lovano are part of a middle generation in jazz, whose most formative musical experience may well have been watching the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. They are jazz musicians of the rock era and not yet senior statesmen in their chosen field.

"Yeah, too old and too young; in-between," Scofield laughs. "But everybody's got to be some age. Thank God we're not senior statesmen, although we are getting there. Joe and I both consider ourselves lucky we got some time to play with those guys of the older bunch, but our generation is in-between and for me as a guitar player I love blues and rock and so brought some of that in there.

"And I didn't see anything wrong with that. It's a guitar, what the hell."

Whatever it is that Scofield does - jazz, blues, rock, some simply call it Sco-music - and despite still learning a lick or two from his peers, he is also passing the information on. Within his busy touring and recording schedule, he manages a role as an adjunct professor at New York University - not that it's as demanding as it sounds.

"They have a jazz studies department and I teach seven days a semester and it's fun, especially in that I don't have to do it that much. But I enjoy hanging out with the students."

Which raises a question as old as that one about white men singing the blues: can jazz be taught?

"No," Scofield laughs emphatically. "Jazz can be learned but it can't be taught.

"There are a lot of technical things you can relay to somebody but that's not going to teach them how to play. You can teach someone how to be good, but that's maybe true with all the arts.

"There are definite technical elements you can teach and if somebody is a talented musician they are going to help - or even if somebody is not talented. But if they're not, then why would they bother to play?"

LOWDOWN
Who: Guitarist John Scofield
What: Labour Weekend Musical Bonanza with Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano, harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, Opensouls and more.
Where: SkyCity Theatre