Well-known jazz musician John Scofield has spent the last five years updating his sound with the help of modern technology and new collaborators — including innovative guitarist Avi Bortnick.
Jazz guitar is not a topic often covered in the pages of SOS. The simple reason is that traditionally, as a rule, jazz musicians in general and jazz guitarists in particular have rarely operated at the cutting edges of music technology. Trumpeter Miles Davis was the most famous jazz musician to toy with music technology, working with electric instruments and tape editing in the late '60s and '70s, synths, sampling, sequencing, and go-go rhythms in the '80s, and hip-hop rhythms and programming on his last album, Doo-Bop (1992). A few other jazz legends — keyboardists like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea, followed in his footsteps — but they were exceptions.
However, as the integration of different music styles continues apace, and music technology becomes more versatile, jazz musicians are increasingly found at the technological frontline. One guitarist who has long been at the forefront of jazz is John Scofield. Widely respected by conservative jazz forces for his fluid style, subtle timing, rich sound, and unusual choice of notes, he could be resting on his laurels as an eminence grise of the jazz world. But although he continues to produce the occasional more traditional-sounding semi-acoustic jazz record, such as Works For Me (2000), he is more known for innovative jazz-rock explorations. Recently, Scofield has gone beyond his customary jazz-rock endeavours and began working with hip-hop and acid jazz influences, and exploring the outer limits of music technology. The culmination of this is last year's weird, wonderful and sample-laden Überjam album.
"Yes, the album is a departure for me," Scofield agrees, "because really I have an old-school background, and I'm not an electronics-type person. I'm not very technical at all, but I like the innovations in music of the last 20 years. I have watched them happening, but from the point of view of an electric guitarist it was not immediately obvious to me how I could use these things. So they ran a parallel course to my music, until I began playing more funky stuff and using electronic sample-type effects, really since 1996-7."
John Scofield cut his teeth on the 'old-school' stuff playing with a range of well-known acoustic jazz players during the '70s. He came to prominence in the mid-'70s when he played in Billy Cobham's fusion band, and was guitarist in Miles Davis's band from 1982 to 1985. Since playing with Davis, Scofield has continued to put out solo albums (totting up almost 30 by now), and taken part in many more collaborations with various well-known jazz musicians, among them Bill Frisell, Mose Alison and Herbie Hancock.
Around 1996, Scofield set out to explore some of the latest developments in music through collaborations with younger musicians. The first result was a 1998 album called A Go Go, which was made with Medeski, Martin & Wood (MMW), a New York acid-jazz trio who emerged in the early 1990s with a successful marriage of avant-garde experimentation and jazz and soul grooves. (Medeski, Martin & Wood, playing keyboards, drums & bass respectively, were also responsible for introducing DJ culture into jazz with ad hoc fourth member DJ Logic.)
A Go Go was a critical and commercial success, and Scofield continued his experimental path on Bump (2000), featuring not only Chris Wood from MMW, but also members of young innovative American bands Sex Mob (weird jazz), Deep Banana Blackout (alternative rock and jazz-funk), and Soul Coughing (experimental rock and acid jazz). Scofield remarked on the video on the enhanced Bump CD: "One of the things I wanted to do was to organise a lot of musicians that I'd heard and had become fans of from some different bands around the country and invite them to play my music with me... It is very ambient, very sonic, very different for me and something I wanted to do with my music for a long time."
When Scofield wanted to play the music of Bump on the road, his main challenge was to recreate the sampling contributions of Soul Coughing's keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni. It is here that the story of Überjam begins. "Mark played a few concerts with us," the guitarist recounts, "but I really couldn't afford to have that many people in the band, as I like to pay my musicians well. I wanted to work with a four-piece, and the drummer I had at the time, Ben Perowski, had a little sampling box and offered to program some samples and trigger them from his drum set."
In addition, Scofield had done quite a few guitar overdubs on Bump, and to recreate them, he decided to give in his wife Susan, who had been pushing him to have a two-guitar band for 20 years. Enter a completely unknown rhythm guitarist from the San Francisco area, Avi Bortnick. "When I flew to New York in January 2000 for the audition I thought I was just getting a free trip to New York out of it," Bortnick recalls. "I did not expect to get into the band because I was an unknown character in the musical grand scheme of things. On top, although I can fool the uninitiated with my jazz playing, anyone who is really good can immediately tell I'm a joker jazz player. But I love playing rhythm guitar, which is a trance-like locking into a groove, where you create minute variations with pushing or laying back or otherwise changing the length of the 16th notes you're playing."
Bortnick need not have worried about his crummy jazz playing, because Scofield explained that jazz credentials were not what he was looking for in his rhythm player. "I always wanted to get a great rhythm guitarist, and there is a specific kind of R&B rhythm guitar that I really love. Avi is a master of that. And when Ben left the band Avi got really into sampling, and he is now doing a lot of it, programming samples and loops, using different boxes and even a laptop to trigger them from, and tapping in the sample tempos and so on."
Israel-born American Bortnick has a background in '70s funk and soul music, as well as African, Caribbean and Brazilian music, and in what he calls "structured fusion," such as is played by Steve Morse and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Before meeting Scofield his only claim to fame was an unreleased recording session with Bobby McFerrin, and he paid the rent working as an acoustical consultant. Playing with Scofield, one of his heroes, was a dream come true. What he could never have predicted was that in working with his 'old-school' guitar hero, he would be deeply drawn into the area of electronics. "My acoustic consultancy work doesn't have any influence here," Bortnick remarked, "because it is rarely anything to do with music. Usually it's about noise control and sound insulation, and the calculations could in practice also be done if you were completely deaf. But I was familiar with electronics from messing around with things in my home studio and reading magazines like Sound On Sound. I love following whatever is new gadget-wise."
His natural interest in electronic devices came in very handy as the music he played with Scofield developed. Normally John Scofield writes all the tunes for his solo albums, rehearses them with a band, and records them. But he calls Überjam "much more of a band record than any previous records I have done. We put the music together on the road. It was a cooperative effort, with me bringing in some tunes, and the band writing tunes together. We're even playing one tune just written by Avi, 'Tomorrow Land'."
After Ben Perowski was replaced by drummer Adam Deitch and Bortnick was left to fend for himself with his samples, an adventurous musical direction came into being based around these samples, and featuring Bortnick's tight rhythm playing, Scofield's guitaristic experimentation, and the groove input of Deitch and bassist Jesse Murphy. "Originally we were just doing the music of Bump," said Bortnick, "using mainly noise and textural samples. But then I also began programming, sampling and looping drum breaks and rhythms, and things developed from there."
The music that is documented on Überjam progressed gradually within the band while it was on the road, and was still being invented while the band were in the recording studio in the Summer of 2001. "We were discovering things right up to the point when we were recording," Scofield says with obvious pride. "So this means that things were very fresh and I think that this carries through on the record. I believe it is one of the better albums I've done. It has a vibe. Most electronic-based records are made by a guy sitting behind a laptop and doing lots of overdubs, but we recorded everything live at Avatar Studios in New York, and only went back to fix little mistakes here and there. With all the samples we had too many tracks for 24-track analogue, so we went 32-track digital, but also went through an old all-tube Neve board, and used all kinds of tube microphones and limiters."
According to Bortnick, many of the odd sound effects on Überjam are not samples, but sounds generated by Scofield and keyboardist John Medeski of MMW, who played Mellotron, Hammond B3 organ, and Clavinet on the album. Bortnick points for instance, to jungle-like background noises on 'Acidhead', which are Medeski striking the strings in his clavinet. Other examples of Medeski's creative abuse of his instruments include high sparkling noises in the right speaker at 1'10" and turntable-like noises at 5'38", also both in 'Acidhead', the distorted growling noises at the end of 'Animal Farm' and the whistle-like sounds in 'Polo Towers' at 2'40". Scofield himself contributes dozens of weird guitar noises including many backwards sounds (such as those in '1 Brake 4 Monster Booty' at 0'30"), him scrubbing his nails across the strings (same track at 3'33") and goat-like noises in 'Animal Farm' (1'17").
"On the album I use the Boomerang sampler a lot," Scofield explains. "You plug your guitar in, record into it, and it plays it right back for you. You can loop things or warp them. The other main effect I use is the Digitech Whammy pedal, which can pitch-shift phrases, or create fake scratching that sounds like a DJ scratching. I also have some new stuff that I didn't use on the album, such as a Line 6 Filter Modeler, which has some truly amazing effects. It's like 15 different foot pedals in one, sounding so real that it's almost copyright infringement. I don't know how they get away with it. I continue to find new things in these pedals, and mix them together and get really weird things. But sometimes it can get very complicated and it's hit and miss, to tell you the truth."
And so we come to the man responsible for the remainder of the kaleidoscopic sound palette that makes Überjam so fascinating. On his web site Bortnick details the collection of foot pedals that he uses for his guitar, such as the Electro-Harmonix Frequency Analyzer ring modulator, Univox Super Fuzz, Boss DD5 Digital Delay, DOD FX17 wah pedal, Boss Phase Shifter, Boss Blues Driver, and Ibanez AF9 Autofilter. A nice collection, but none of these boxes would raise an eyebrow in a self-respecting guitar magazine. Where Bortnick really stretched the envelope was with some other rather basic pieces of gear, most notably his Boss SP202 Dr. Sample sampler and Korg ES1 sampling drum machine. The guitarist explains: "First of all I have to make clear that the guitar and sampling are not linked. My guitar does not trigger any of the samples. It runs through a completely different rig. What I do is control the Dr. Sample and ES1 with a Yamaha MFC10 MIDI foot controller, which I started using because I got fed up with having to stop playing guitar to hit a button with my hand.
"The Dr. Sample and ES1 are really rudimentary samplers, but for me they really work live because, being aimed at DJs and so on, they are table-top devices with everything lighting up clearly and there being no intensive menus to scroll through. Everything is right up front. The Boss is almost like a toy, run off batteries and with a simple built-in mic. The fidelity is not that good, but I actually think it has a cool sound. The Korg has a built-in tap tempo button, but it seems unnecessarily complicated to me. The only way to get the Korg to respond to foot controller messages was to use an external MIDI clock. So I have a Red Sound Beat Detector with a tap tempo button. With that I can bring in the drum machine in the tempo we are already playing as a band. My only gripe is that I still have to tap with my finger, while I wish I could tap the tempo in with my feet. I also have a Boss DD5 for my sampling rig, and this has a tap tempo button, but I only use it for tapping in the delay tempos.
"When I began doing this sampling stuff I had only the Dr. Sample Boss unit, which came with a CD full of weird samples, some of them corny, but some quite useful. I started off using some of them, and after that went through my CD collection to find drum breaks or sounds that I thought were interesting. I also programmed some samples in my D50, and made some arpeggiated patterns using a monophonic software synth called [Koblo] Tokyo. Plus I recorded some samples live with the Dr. Sample's inbuilt mic. On top of this I used Propellerhead's Rebirth and Reason software on my Mac. I made some beats with the Rebirth software, and Reason is an amazing program, especially the completely automatable filters are very useful. I used this software on '1 Brake 4 Monster Booty' and 'Lucky For Her' [see box below]."
Überjam is littered with unusual and intriguing sound effects, so I asked Avi Bortnick to explain where some of them came from.
- 'Acidhead': "The Indian sitars and vocals at the beginning are something I downloaded from the Internet and pitched up a step or two to make them work with the key the song is in. Medeski, Scofield and myself are all doing weird sounds on the song — for instance the turntable-like sound at 5'38" is Medeski on the Mellotron."
- 'Jungle Fiction': "The low growling sounds at 1'58" are Jesse Murphy on bass and me working his Electro-Harmonix Bass Micro-Synth during an overdub. The break from 3'33" to 4'25" is mainly a duet between me on sampler and drum machine and Adam Deitch on drums, heavily processed during mixdown."
- '1 Brake 4 Monster Booty': "I used Reason on this after we had recorded the track. I had a stereo mix of the drums and a stereo mix of the bass, Sco and me. With Reason I programmed the drum samples to work with the arrangement and also figured out where to drop the real drums in and out. After I got it all together we sync'ed Reason to tape and transferred what I'd done."
- 'Animal Farm': "The goat or sax-like noises are John Scofield using his Boomerang, pitching some vibrato-ed notes up an octave. At 1'34" there's a drum machine loop, which is the Korg ES1."
- 'Offspring': "The break at 0'43" is the Korg ES1 with a pattern I made and then tweaked in real time. The Boss Dr. Sample is run through the audio input of the ES1 here, and processed in the ES1. The bird-like noises at the end are sections of a Brazilian record sampled on the Dr. Sample and run through the ES1."
- 'Überjam': "The '70s keyboards at the beginning I created with various synths. I think I mainly used Koblo's Vibra software synth. I may also have used sounds that came with the sound CD for the Dr. Sample. At 1'59" that's me working with the Dr. Sample, using a ring modulator feature to morph in atmospheric sound. And the low [didgeridoo-like] sound that you hear beginning at 0'17" is a Tibetan monk singing a low B flat. We met him on tour in Italy, and it was sort of funny, because he was a pushy monk. During our soundcheck he was trying to convince us to let him come on stage while we were playing. John said, 'Well, we can't do that because our stuff is pretty arranged. But why don't you come up to the microphone now and sing something for us.' So he did this throat singing with very low overtones. I just turned on the Dr. Sample and sampled a few seconds of it using its built-in microphone. And lo and behold he was singing in B flat, which was perfect for the title track, which is also in B flat."
- 'Snap Crackle Pop': "The record was done on a jazz budget, which means recorded fast and mixed fast, and we had a lot of tracks on this tune, up to 32. The plan was to mute my drum machine loop in certain places, but that was overlooked in the mix. In live performance I bring the drum machine in and out of the tune, but during recording, rather than play to a click track, we decided to just let the drum machine go on and play to it, and later take it in and out in the mix. Some of the drum sounds are samples I put in, I think some of them are from Rebirth. I'm also doing some delay manipulations on the loop. At 2'44" you can hear me working the Dr. Sample ring modulator with another atmospheric sound that I made. The backwards sounds at the end? That's Sco with his Boomerang."
- 'Lucky For Her': "This track is very sample-heavy. Basically I'm again running sounds I made in Dr. Sample through the audio input of the ES1, which you can do to create rhythmic patterns. Hence the choppy sounds at the beginning. I also used Reason for this, to do some of the sweepy filter sounds."
Bortnick overdubbed the sounds he programmed in Rebirth and Reason in the studio, but the Dr. Sample and ES1 sounds he "triggered at the same time as playing the guitar, which was sometimes a bit stressful, because of knowing that it was all going down for an album. A few times I had to go back and fix things and on some songs there are a few layers of samples. But most of what you hear is us live in the studio. The only problem I've had was with the Boss because of the limited memory cards, which are virtually impossible to get these days. I wish I had more sampling capability in the Dr. Sample. But I love it, and I think it's actually better than the updated version, the SP303. The time-stretching is better on the SP202, and this is a key feature for me."
Because of the memory limitations of the Dr. Sample, Bortnick has since taken to using a software sound source on stage — an Apple iBook with Ableton Live software. "I use it essentially as sample playback software. The interesting thing about Live is that it will put any sample into whatever tempo you want. It does this instantly and automatically. It's great, and I'm having lots of different samples in it now, which I am using while we are fleshing out new material for the next album. I think it's really great software."
Despite his praise, Bortnick has some suggestions for how Live could be improved. "I wish that Live didn't time-stretch every sample, that there was a way to turn that off, because some samples aren'trhythmic. I also would like the interface to be a little more customisable so that you could make things look larger for live use. Things are a very small on the screen, and it makes it look as if you are checking your email on your laptop. This may be fine when you are a techno guy sitting behind a table, but it's not practical when you're trying to play guitar at the same time. But what I would really wish is something that acted exactly like the Dr. Sample, which is just a simple phrase sampler, but with lots of memory."
So as the John Scofield band continues to tour the world with their unusual mix of the composed, the improvised, and the programmed (with new bassist, Andy Hess), there's also a new album to look forward to. It will be interesting to see the musical progress of the band, how they'll warp technology, and what other entertaining titles Sco & Co will treat us to, following 'Ideofunk', 'Snap Crackle Pop', '1 Brake 4 Monster Booty', and, of all things, Überjam.