Feature

John Scofield unpacks life and music leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival

Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, and Chet Baker are undoubtedly some of the biggest names in jazz and they all have one thing in common – John Scofield.

Having collaborated with so many of the jazz greats has certainly made a colourful career in music for the Grammy award-winning guitarist, known by his friends in jazz simply as Sco. In his 40 years as a performing artist he has released over 30 vastly different albums and is basically the father of funk-tastical jazz rock.

The 20th anniversary of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival is less than two weeks away. Sco headlined about 10 years ago or so – he isn’t 100% sure.

“Thanks for writing about the music”, he calmly opens. “We need all the help we can get, you know?”

I honestly can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to get him on the phone.

He summarises his career, from picking up the guitar at age 11 to studying music at Berklee, College of Music in Boston. “[It] was a great place for me to get it together, you know? And then in those years, you just sorta dropped out if you had enough gigs.” He did just that, dropping out after two years. He continues to talk about the numerous bands he played in or fronted, a name-dropping frenzy. But these were his homies – the hippest, most swinging, jazz cats.

“The guys that I got to play with, some of them are very famous, ‘cause I was in NY, you know? The center of the jazz world.

And some of them not so famous, but they were really good, you know? And that’s how I learnt, from playing with the good guys and tryna copy them, tryna sound good myself,” he explains.We steer the conversation to what the evolution of technology has done to and for music. He really digs the fact that these days we have Spotify and Apple music and Youtube. He uses all of the above on a daily basis. “[But] sometimes that might be confusing for younger musicians who don’t know where to go, all of a sudden they can hear everything.” He pauses. “Maybe it’s better not to have all this information?”

He also shares his thoughts on self-promotion for young artists, saying, “Everybody wants to promote themselves. But in the old days you couldn’t, so the record company had to do it. Now everybody takes time away from their art to do this and I don’t think that’s so good.”

Clearly he’s a very firm believer in practice makes perfect. Very firm.

Music evolution still at the core of the conversation, we talk about Combo 66, the band he put together that he’ll be sharing the Cape Town International Jazz Festival stage with this year.

Sco tells me that they’re an eclectic mix of old and young. “I played with Bill [Stewart] [legendary jazz drummer] for almost thirty years on and off. I consider him one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever heard.

“Playing with Gerald [Clayton] [burning pianist] is a new thing for me. I’ve known him for a long time ‘cause I knew his father, John Clayton [masterful jazz and classical double-bassist]. I’ve known he was really good, but over the last year and a half we’ve been playing a lot together.

“The same thing with [Vicente] Archer [jazz double-bassist deluxe]. He’s incredible. He can play funky grooves but he can also just walk. And he can play jazz time. And also… he’s real creative. We’ve been having a blast playing together!

“I’m really excited about this group. I think it’s definitely one of the best I’ve ever had, if not the best! And I’m excited to bring it to Cape Town.”

Wait… Sco’s played with so many masterful musos? If Combo 66 are “the best” what kind of mastery can we expect? I’d made a pact to myself to resist listening to the album they recorded together. And then I broke it, because I couldn’t. Every single one of the tracks on the self-titled album is its own kind of genius. Every moment is magical. If Sco says they’re the best, then I believe him.

It’s the return of the king, Cape Town! Don’t sleep on this.