Jazz-funk eclecticism: Scofield’s Uberjam to perform at Carolina Theatre

Sep. 13, 2013 @ 09:26 AM

When guitarist John Scofield talks about his Uberjam Band, he emphasizes his roots in rock, blues and funk, and the importance of improvisation.

“Improvisation is always one of the key elements in music,” he said. “For me, as a jazz musician, I also have roots in blues and funk. This [band] brings out aspects of that music too,” he said. He recorded the first Uberjam project about 10 years ago. Now, Scofield has released “Uberjam Deux,” and the band will come to the Carolina Theatre on Thursday.
Other members of Uberjam are Andy Hess on bass, Avi Bortnick on guitar and electronic samples, and Tony Mason on drums.
“We’ve really not played since 2006,” Scofield said of the Uberjam lineup. “This is a reunion really, with that sound and concept.” That concept, Scofield said, melds use of electronics with rhythms from funk, rock, reggae and other grooves. Bortnick “the master controller of the computer,” provides samples that the ensemble works with to create danceable rhythms, he said.
Scofield also can swing, but unlike some improvisers who speak with disdain about the fusion era, Scofield does not. Along with Pat Metheny, Mike Stern and other guitarists, Scofield is among the generation that grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and other rock-blues guitarists, and incorporated their techniques and sounds into jazz. Scofield also got interested in jazz about the time Miles Davis, a future colleague, was recording his first jazz-rock fusion records.
When he was growing up, he heard jazz mainly in soundtracks for old films and television, he said. “But rock was the music of young people. I got into the blues right when the blues started to become popular with young white kids … and that music led me to jazz, because they have a definite connection.” About age 16, he bought some Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk records “and became a jazz head.”
He has been a very eclectic jazz head. From 1970 to 1973, he attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and then began playing music around the city. He recorded with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, was a member of the Billy Cobham-George Duke band, and recorded with Charles Mingus.
From 1982 to 1985, he recorded and toured with trumpeter Miles Davis. “When I got to play with him, it was a dream come true. It turned out to be one of the real highlights of my career,” he said. Davis “hired guys that he liked the way they played. He would not hesitate to tell you what he wanted,” Scofield said.
As a leader, Scofield has recorded funk-influenced albums like “A Go Go” (with Medeski, Martin and Wood), “Bump” and the Uberjam projects. He recorded an acoustic album “Quiet,” and in 2009 he recorded “Piety Street,” his interpretations of traditional spirituals.
Whatever style, Scofield has a distinctive sound, one that incorporates electronic effects with great subtlety. His tone can be rich and deep at times (listen to his playing on Joe Henderson’s “So Near, So Far”), at other times just slightly distorted (listen to “Fat Lip” from Scofield’s recording “Time on My Hands”). His philosophy with electronics is, “If it sounds good, use it. As far as my own guitar playing is concerned, I started out playing in the ’60s, when they started … with the wah wah pedal and the fuzz tone. I’ve always felt comfortable with that sort of thing,” he said. “Basically, I’m a straight guitar player. Other people make their lives about sonically changing the guitar, but it’s great to have other stuff to use when you want to make the music interesting.”
He rejects the idea that learning music theory takes the soul out of your playing. “That’s not true: Music is a science as well as an art,” he said. “Even guys who learn to play by ear end up having to learn about it.” Understanding the inside of the music also works in concert with improvisation. In Uberjam “we are constantly feeling out different parts of the tune. … The fact that we play this kind of music means we have worked on our intuitive side.”

Go and Do

WHAT: John Scofield with the Uberjam Band
WHEN: Thursday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $27. To purchase, call 919-560-3030 or visit www.carolinatheatre.org.