John Scofield Brings His Guitar Chops to The Suffolk - 27 East

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John Scofield Brings His Guitar Chops to The Suffolk

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Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. NICK SUTTLE

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Guitarist and composer John Scofield. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Emily Weitz on Mar 26, 2023

John Scofield is a musician’s musician. Anyone who studies the movements of the fingers along the guitar fret or the way he changes the sound of his instrument with a tap of the foot on a pedal knows that he is among the best of his kind.

But Scofield? At 71, he’s still trying to get better, practicing every day.

“I’m a student,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I hope to always be exploring something. Maybe I’m fooling myself that I can get any better, but I’m always hoping.”

The humility that infuses his voice as he talks about his musical journey probably started with the fact that, from the earlier days of his career, he was playing among legends. In the early 1980s, he was in a band with Miles Davis. He played with Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock … the list goes on.

“I wore out their records before I ever met them,” he said, recalling the thrill of playing with his heroes.

But he was coming up at a time that was interesting for a guitar player to dive deep into the realm of jazz music. When most of us think of jazz, we think of the trumpet, the saxophone, the piano. But the jazz guitar has a style all its own, and Scofield has devoted his life to it.

It’s an interesting history — the guitar really couldn’t have existed as a solo instrument in a jazz ensemble until the electric guitar was invented in the late 1930s or so, and by then, Scofield explains, jazz was really on its way.

“If you were going to be a jazz musician you didn’t pick guitar,” he said. “So there were sax players, trumpet players and piano players who were the leading light. But Charlie Christian got an electric guitar in 1939 or 1940. It allowed the instrument to be heard in an ensemble.”

Tragically, Christian died shortly after. When Scofield started playing with Miles Davis decades later, Davis told him he believed that Charlie Christian and his electric guitar helped to invent bee bop.

Anyway, by the time Scofield was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a clear direction for a budding guitarist to go — rock ’n’ roll. Scofield had examples of greatness, like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, to look to.

“I heard all those people as a high school kid, and I loved it,” he said. “But I was headed in a different direction. First, I got way into blues and that led me to jazz. I loved the idea of the higher form of expression.”

He was influenced by all the jazz greats, not just guitarists. Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, John Coltraine.

“All of us are jazz fans first,” said Scofield. “That’s why we get good at the music.”

When asked what he loves about the guitar, especially in the context of jazz music, Scofield’s initial response is surprising.

“I hate the guitar every day,” he said. “Because I wish I played it a little better. It kicks my ass.”

But maybe it’s because the instrument continues to challenge him, even after all these years, that he’s still willing to sit down and practice every day. The payoff when he makes the machine do exactly what he wants, when he can translate what’s inside to what’s outside with immediacy and ease — that’s what keeps him working at it.

“It’s my mode of expression,” he said. “I love it when it’s working right. If I have a bad night, I think, ‘Forget the guitar’. But I never actually forget it.”

It was funny, hearing this living legend talk about his craft with such close proximity — this isn’t a masterpiece he’s done that has earned him the right to rest.

“Nobody can rest on their laurels if they want to be any good,” he said. “I guess I am hard on myself, but I think you have to be in order to improve.”

Scofield has played with too many greats to name from Miles Davis to Phish. And collaboration is a foundational part of jazz music. Though on his current tour, he’s performing solo, Scofield takes his improvisational and collaborative chops and turns them inward, utilizing a looper pedal.

“The looper pedal has allowed me to make a bigger sound than just my guitar,” he said. “Nothing is prerecorded. I do it all onstage.”

That’s what he’ll be doing when he comes to the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Thursday, April 6. And for a musician who spends so much time on the road, touring across Europe and Asia and the United States, it’s nice to play in your home-state for a change.

“I consider this a hometown gig,” said Scofield, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, but grew up in nearby Connecticut. “I’m excited to see some friends and play for my homies.”

John Scofield performs solo guitar at Suffolk Theater on Thursday, April 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $65 at thesuffolk.org. Suffolk Theater is at 118 East Main in Riverhead.

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