Volume 18 • Issue 15 | September 01 - 08, 2005

John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles
The Blue Note
131 W. 3rd St.
Sept. 6-11
212-475-8592

Photo by Alan Nahigian

“John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles” will perform at The Blue Note, Sept. 6 - 11.

Finding success playing the music of Ray Charles

Band to make world debut performance

By Rick Marx

It’s an unwieldy name for a band, but the John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles band is certainly descriptive. The top-seeded jazz guitar player has made his mark with trios and jam bands, and now, is bringing the new group to the Blue Note this week, which will be making its world debut.

“We’re playing exclusively the music of Ray Charles,” said Scofield. “I started out as a kid liking Ray Charles. Ray was a big pop star, and he crossed over in the 60’s with his country western songs that became big hits when I started to get into music.”

While Scofield never had the opportunity to play with Ray Charles, he has played with Ray’s longtime saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, one of many all-stars — along with Dr. John, Mavis Staples and singer John Mayer (“an official pop star,” Sco notes) — who appear on Sco’s Verve album, “John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles.” “The album’s been a success, it’s getting radio airplay and it’s selling,” said Scofield.

It was the influence of Ray Charles that introduced young Sco to R&B and gospel music. “I liked him as a kid, and when I started playing in rock bands, as a kid, we would always play Ray Charles tunes. Back then, you’d be working on your new arrangement on the Beatles tune, but everybody knew ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘Hit the Road Jack.’”

Success is something that Scofield, 54, frequently finds, no matter which jazz genre he approaches. His recent recordings have featured him playing in a trio with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Steve Swallow, and on the college circuit with his “über” jam band, accompanied by a funky rhythm section of bass, organ and drums. No matter what style he indulges, he is recognized for his pioneering guitar-phonics that were nurtured by fusion dates in the 1970’s with Miles Davis and drummer Billy Cobham, and then electrified in the ‘80s with wizardly power groups. Scofield refined his jazz playing a little later, particularly with stunning performances with saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson, bassists Swallow and Dave Holland, drummers Billy Higgins, Stewart and many others.

Has the music of Ray Charles changed the way he approaches his playing?

“People have said I sound different on this record,” said Scofield. “I’m trying to play with the singers. I didn’t want to play too many notes. I didn’t want to clutter up the music, because the sounds are pure. I wanted to play soulful guitar, not play a million notes. People say I’ve changed my style for the record, and there’s a certain truth to that, but mainly I was just trying to play the gig, play the right thing for the song.”

The orchestration of the ensemble includes bass, drums, organ and vocalist. “There’s a great singer named Meyer Statham, who I found up in Boston,” said Scofield. “He’s kind of a discovery, because he’s been on the wedding, Top 40 circuit up there, he’s a great soul singer with gospel roots. He also plays trombone.”

Organist Gary Versace is a regular in New York City, and bassist John Benitez on bass is renowned for his work with Eddie Palmieri, Danilo Perez, — “all the Latin greats,” said Sco. “He’s one of the best Latin jazz bass players. He can play every kind of music. And we have a great drummer who John Benitez turned me on to, Steve Hass.”

Musicians for the group, except for Benitez, were selected via audition, in which performers “came and played. I auditioned tons of guys,” Sco said.

It’s fitting that the world tour — which will take the band throughout the U.S. this fall, to Europe and to the Pacific Rim next spring — begins in the Village. Every year Sco inhabits the Blue Note for a week. “That is really important to any jazz musician, to play an extended run in a club is a great thing,” he said. “It’s a great way to get your band together, to get tight, and clubs are better than concerts because you play two long sets, and by the second set you get warmed up the way you don’t in a concert setting.

“The Blue Note is now my favorite club,” he said. “First of all I like the layout and the sound, I like the intimacy. I think as a listener and a player, I like being right in there, you can experience the music the way it’s supposed to be experienced, rather than the 40th row. It’s one of the top couple of jazz clubs in New York City that has consistently the highest level of performers.”

A small club like the Blue Note offers the opportunity to play the “more subtle stuff that you might not get into in a big venue — ballads, and soft stuff that gets swallowed up in a big hall,” said Scofield. “Also, just the spontaneity of playing in the same room every night, you get looser. The songs can go different ways, we tend to take more chances which is good for jazz.”

Ray Charles, jazzman? You bet.

“I consider this stuff jazz too,” said Sco. “When you’re playing the Ray Charles songbook, there’s jazz in there. In the 50’s he played some records that were really jazz records. A lot of the funky stuff, even though it’s not straightahead stuff, we get in some blowing. I look forward to doing that. There’s a real challenge to make that happen, to make it funky is quite a challenge, to make something groove. It’s intangible, just like swing.”


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