TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: John Scofield talks Miles Davis, missing Woodstock and supergroup Hudson

John Medeski, Larry Grenadier, Jack DeJohnette and John Scofield, collectively they are Hudson.

As a teenager, in 1969, John Scofield had a chance to go to the Woodstock festival. It was happening just down the turnpike from his home.

“I had a ticket that I had bought, but I had a day job after school,” the legendary jazz guitarist said in an interview. The festival started on a Thursday and by the time Scofield got off work, Highway “87 was completely clogged and my father said ‘You can’t take my car up there’.

“So I had to stay home. I had no way to get there. I thought I might hitchhike … and then I just sort of didn’t do it. I’m getting there now … Woodstock has entered my fingers.”

Scofield is part of a jazz supergroup called Hudson that has just released an album of jazz versions of songs written in and around Woodstock, New York, by people such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Band.

The Hudson River Valley north of New York City has long been a cultural hub. Great painters, writers and musicians have lived along it. The Catskill Mountains were the summer home of funny men and women from the big city.

But that’s not why this band is called Hudson, Scofield says.

“We didn’t say we were going to make a band that was going to reflect the Hudson school of painters or the Hudson River or Henry Hudson himself. It’s because we all live around here and were trying to figure out what to call the group.”

“It somehow became a little more than that when we decided that the repertoire would be from the Woodstock area and artists that lived there and played at the festival. And we were going do our own jazz versions of these tunes.”

Scofield believes it was a natural thing to take folk and rock music and jazz it.

“It’s completely natural. We wouldn’t be doing it if it was hard to do. For me music it has to be natural. At one point in jazz maybe this wouldn’t have been a natural thing to do but for all of us we played that music. We’ve listened to it. We’ve actually played in rock bands. I was a kid in rock bands even though I am now a jazz musician.

“There seems to be this natural way to play it that is not the same as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. It’s jazz. It’s still those tunes. But it’s also natural to improvise on it and stretch out. I don’t think music is ever ( in a silo). You can’t make it that.

“We learned to play music from learning songs. Then you have all this vocabulary that comes from other places.

Jazz comes from a tradition, he says, that loops back to “some Elizabethan bard.”

“We are history, all of us” in Hudson. The ‘us’ also includes Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier and John Medeski.

“I have played with all of them a lot.” But never all four together, he added, until, “we had played a gig where we had played jazz standards and had fun doing it at the Woodstock Jazz Festival two years ago.

“Last winter we decided to get together and make an album. That was next time we played together. We talked about repertoire then and what we were going to do. After that we just played. We would have little ideas about the arrangements but the music is pretty spontaneous.

“I have played with Medeski, Martin and Wood many times. When I joined it was called Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood. We played tons of gigs and made albums. I’ve made albums with Jack DeJohnette and been on joint projects together.

“Larry (Grenadier) and I have played together a lot too but not so much on record. He was in a band I had for a couple of years in the 1990s.”

While Scofield says he never listens to his albums, the reviews have been pretty positive for Hudson since its release June 9.

“The music is an adventure because it is so improvisational. Even though we are playing these songs we play them different every time. The idea of all of our styles of music is to let the stuff be different every time and hopefully something will come up and spark and we can improvise together and make something new every time.”

Scofield doesn’t know Bob Dylan but he is a fan of the music and his words. he told Rolling Stone magazine in an interview about the project that he bought his first Dylan album, Bringing It All Back Home, in 1965.

“Some of Bob’s tunes are really melodic. They do translate into jazz tunes.

“I am also a fan of the words. I think he tapped into some stuff that is really improvisational. I love poetry, I love his stuff, it gives you an image and a feeling.”

Collaboration is a natural inclination for Scofield.

“None of us are ‘solo’ performers per se. We all have done a little bit of that. But we are all band guys. We like playing in a band and being part of that thing. There is nothing like it when a band takes off and the sum result is greater than the parts.

“It’s what I live for. It really is. The older I get the more I realize that this subtle thing happens when everybody really listens to each other. You can hear other jazz that, to me, is not as successful when the each part it doesn’t matter what the other guy plays.

“When we all listen to each other and do our thing that is sort of simultaneous — and all these guys can play like that — it’s just fascinating and exhilarating and fun.”

Does the band Hudson have a life?

“We put it together for this one project. We all love to play together but the nature of the business these days is the beast wants new stuff. In order to play festivals and get tours and new gigs you have to have something new to offer, otherwise it’s ‘we just had you last year.’ That’s not particularly good for working groups.”

They may love playing together, he says, but they are also all leaders of their own projects.

For example, “I did a record called Country for Old Men” with his usual band. It picked up a Grammy for best jazz instrumental album. As the title suggests it’s a collection of country tunes jazzed.

He’s also on the road about 150 days a year and he teaches part time at New York University in the big city.

“My wife (Susan) is my manager, she makes me do it. She’s up there on the computer trying to figure out how she can get me out of the house.”

Scofield wasn’t happy with his old manager so Susan starting booking his tours and “that was 30 years ago. She’s gotten very good at it. Other people ask her to manage them but she prefers this commission scale. Most people get 15 per cent, she gets 100 per cent.”

Why does he tour so much? “I love playing. That’s why I got into it.

“When I was a little kid I went to Lake Placid with my parents. I had just gotten my guitar I was 11 and there was a club in the town and the band played there every night. They were great. I could hear them from the outside. That doesn’t happen anymore. In order to be a national act you have to travel.”

That 11 year old boy imagined life as a rock and roller.

“It was rock, but it was also soul music. I was way into that. … I also loved the Beach Boys and the Beatles. There was always a guitar solo in all the songs. When I was about 15, I realized jazz was like those little solos in the middle of a rock tune but the whole thing was that.

“There was this bigger form of music that was better than rock and roll.”

His guitar teacher at the time was a jazz guitarist and he taught young John about all the great jazz musicians.

“If there had to be one record that started it all I probably couldn’t pick it. But I did love one guitar player who just died, Larry Coryell. He was in the Gary Burton Quartet and in 1967 they made a record called Duster and that record really blew me away.”

Scofield also met Burton down the line. He was Scofield’s teacher at the Berklee School of Music. And Scofield would go on to play with Burton.

He also played with Miles Davis for three years 1982-85, among many, many others.

“Miles was wonderful to us. All musicians who loved jazz loved Miles. He could be very difficult and mercurial and all that but he was also very funny. … He was always saying dry little put down things all the time.

“One time he was talking about the music when the band was playing and he goes ‘Don’t let John get happy over there.’

“That really meant a lot. There is a certain thing about being glib and too satisfied. The best stuff doesn’t happen then. He was always saying stuff like that and afterwards you’d think about it and go ‘Wow that’s deep. He was one of those old jazz guys who really thought about the whole thing of performing and coming up with a way to play that is an art form. He really thought about how to make it happen.”

TD Ottawa Jazz festival
Where: NAC Babs Asper Theatre
When: June 24 at 9 p.m.

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.