John Scofield


John Scofield's earliest memory of the late musical genius Ray Charles goes back to his childhood in the early '60s, when he heard the song "Hit the Road Jack" on the radio. "I associated it with Jack Kennedy, because that was the Jack I knew. I thought, Are they talking about a campaign slogan?" he recalls now, laughing.

In the years to come, Ray Charles would have a decisive influence on the young guitarist's career, both in his deep soulfulness and in his refusal to be pinned down as a certain kind of artist. Rhythm & blues, gospel, jazz -even country music-Charles did it all, and did it supremely well. Scofield clearly took both lessons to heart: No matter whether he's playing straight-ahead jazz, jam-band oriented grooves, soul-jazz blowing sessions or even contemporary-classical orchestral pieces, Scofield's trademark is his soulful lyricism.

Small wonder, then, that when Verve president Ron Goldstein suggested that Scofield consider an album in tribute to Charles, the guitarist lent an ear. "I've got to admit that I'm rarely a fan of theme projects - some of them work, and some don't," Scofield says. "But as soon as I heard Ray Charles, it resonated with me. This is music I've known since I first started to play the guitar. Ray's music was one of my inspirations: He was a super soul-music man, but he was also a jazz musician, too. I see him as the height of honest expression."

More than a chance to pay homage to a formative musical influence, Scofield viewed That's What I Say as an ideal opportunity to realize one of his own ambitions. "I'd been thinking about doing something with singers, somehow," Scofield relates, "and this gave me an excuse to approach some of my soul-music idols and perform with them." Scofield's longtime colleague Steve Jordan signed on as producer and suddenly, the possibilities seemed endless.

"Steve Jordan is my co-conspirator in the whole thing," Scofield says of his old friend who had recorded with him in the late '70's. Their musical paths had since diverged-ironically crossing once again in a random encounter just weeks before That's What I Say was conceived. A drummer whose credentials range from Sonny Rollins to the

 Rolling Stones, Jordan has recently been in increasing demand as a record producer. "Classic, rootsy R&B productions are his trademark," Scofield says, If I was going to do an R&B-ish kind of record, Steve was the guy I thought of to play drums right away."

Filling the keyboard bench, Scofield knew who he had to have immediately. "Larry Goldings is my favorite keyboard collaborator," the guitarist says without hesitation. "He's a jazz musician, but he can also play R&B organ and piano with super soul. We're a good blend that way." To complete the band, Jordan called up Willie Weeks, the legendary player whose resume reads like a classic-soul textbook: from Hank Crawford to Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder to the Rolling Stones. "Yeah, but you know, the record all the musicians talk about is Donnie Hathaway Live," Scofield asserts. "He plays so incredibly on there; I wore that record out!"

With the core band assembled, Jordan enlisted a group of backing vocalists and Scofield drafted a horn section for certain tracks. Then came time to draw up a wish-list of guest vocalists. "One of the great things about this record is the fact that we didn't overdub any singers," Scofield says, referring to the common practice of assembling collaborations in multiple studios in different locations. "We did it all together at the same time," he says, recalling days of recording in midtown Manhattan during a chilly December.

One of Scofield's first choices, the inimitable New Orleans singer-pianist Dr. John, was someone with whom the guitarist already had a long, rich history: Scofield played gigs with Dr. John in the '80s, and both had appeared together on albums. They had even played duets on a Scofield videodisc "Live 3 Ways" (recently reissued on DVD).

As for the rest of the starry vocal roster, Scofield says that in many cases, the songs he had in mind dictated his choices. "You Don't Know Me," for instance, cried out for the kind of soulful balladry that Verve labelmate Aaron Neville has long been known for. Another vocal legend, Mavis Staples, had recently worked with Jordan when he supplied music for the 2004 Democratic Convention. "Mavis is my all-time soul diva," Scofield says. "Steve said, 'Oh, she's my buddy, I'll call her.' And then we got her, and I was like,

Wow, Christmas morning!"

Scofield originally got to know singer-guitarist Warren Haynes (of Allman Brothers, Gov't Mule and Dead fame) through slightly more awkward circumstances. "Twenty years ago when he started playing with the Allmans, he came into Sweet Basil where I was playing and asked to sit in," Scofield says. Not knowing the long-haired Southerner, he declined - only to spot Haynes on television shortly afterward. "We laugh about that, now," Scofield says. "He's one of the most soulful guitar players, and a great singer, too." The two have gotten to know each other well in years since, especially given Scofield's recent excursions into jam-band territory; Scofield also played with Haynes on a recent Gov't Mule album.

The guest most likely to raise the eyebrows of jazz and soul purists alike is the vibrant, tremendously successful pop singer-songwriter John Mayer. "I didn't know John, but knew his name--my daughter has his records," Scofield relates. Currently producing Mayer's next album, Jordan informed Scofield that the young musician wanted to participate on That's What I Say in some way. "The John Mayer who has number-one records in America?" Scofield remembers asking.

"I got his records out, and I realized he was playing the hell out of the guitar," Scofield says, admiringly. "We do guitar trading on 'I Don't Need No Doctor'-I thought he would be good for that track, and he came in and totally nailed it! After we recorded, he said he's never sung like that on a record before.' He does a more breathy thing, and this was full voice. And he can do it really well! I think some people will raise their eyebrows, but I think they're going to hear John Mayer in a different light."

Band and singers in place, all that remained was for Scofield to call the tunes-not such an easy task, considering that Charles's career stretches all the way back to the late '40s. "I listened to every Ray Charles tune on record, just about," Scofield says. "I listened and listened and said, This one rings out. And we could do a Volume Two tomorrow, but these were the songs I thought we could do something with...because we changed the music somewhat on almost everything. We weren't too reverential about it, because it would have been stupid to just copy his arrangements."

The album opens with "Busted," an old hit penned by Harlan Howard. According to Scofield, its inclusion was literally an afterthought that Jordan suggested while sitting at the drums during a down time in the session. "Larry started to play it, and Willie Weeks was out of the room," Scofield recalls. "We started to play it, just the three of us...and that's what's on the record! We ran it once, then recorded it." The tune leads directly into one of Charles's signature hits, "What'd I Say," on which the band further intensifies the latent Latin feeling and every vocalist has a shot at the lyrics. "After 'What'd I Say' came out, every drummer had to play that beat," Scofield says. "And so, we took it a step further and salsa-fied it. Steve got into the rhythm arrangement and brought in [percussionist] Manolo Badrena, and we multilayered his stuff with congas and timbales."

A follow-up to "What'd I Say," the Charles song "Sticks and Stones" continues the album's insistent rhythmic groove. "We funkified it," Scofield says of his arrangement. "We did more of a 'Ray Charles Live at Bonnaroo' kind of thing. You could say we 'Bonnarooed' it!" The following tune, "I Don't Need No Doctor," was one of several hits penned for Charles by the songwriting team of Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford and Josephine Armstead. "It's a song I knew from playing in bands in high school," Scofield explains of the tune's bar-band ubiquity. "It was definitely one of those tunes that everybody played. I came up with the little guitar thing that starts it, then just took the blues form and extended it, put it to a different groove."

The inclusion of the Buck Owens country standard, "Cryin' Time," was a must for Scofield. "The first Ray Charles album I ever had was called Cryin' Time," he explains. "It actually one of his great overlooked records; that one I wore out. I see it as a kind of an intro to 'I Can't Stop Loving You,' and that's the way we segued it on the record: The tune 'Cryin' Time' is just me and Larry, with Larry playing the whole range of the Hammond organ. It's really great to hear the beautiful colors he gets out of it."

The following two tracks, "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Hit the Road Jack" might as well be the A-side and B-side of the National Anthem, so firmly are both songs entrenched in the collective psyche thanks to Ray Charles. "Mavis wanted to do 'I Can't Stop Loving You,' and whatever she wants to do is fine with me!" Scofield says, laughing. "I just took out my acoustic guitar and we found a key, and we just listened to her sing it. And I got chills; we all did."

'Hit the Road Jack" introduces the last of the album's starry soloists: saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, who spent over thirty years on the road with Charles. "I put him in the 'special guests' category with the singers" Scofield says. "He's a voice. If ever there was a sound on the saxophone, it's this guy. I'd met him a couple of times over the years, and played with him on a record by Pat Peterson-a Raelette, actually, and [jazz trumpeter] Hannibal Marvin Peterson's sister. That was 20-something years ago, and I hadn't seen him since. I thought he would sound great blowing on this, and wrote a chart that took some liberties with the song, and then I wrote a horn arrangement."

The following medley, "Talkin' Bout You" and "I Got a Woman," allows Scofield to dig into the deep chemistry he feels with Dr. John. "I can't say enough about him," Scofield says. "People call him 'greasy R&B,' but that music he's playing has a feel, a harmonic thing with the keyboard and a subtlety, and so did Ray's music. It's super-sophisticated music, whatever you call it. We start off with 'Talkin' Bout You,' just the two of us in the beginning, and then modulate into 'I Got a Woman' with him singing and the full band, and Fathead played an incredible solo."

"Unchain My Heart (Part 1)" gave Scofield the opportunity to connect the dots between Charles's soulful legacy and the funk masters who followed, such as James Brown. "It's another bar-band staple, and this is another one I changed up a little bit. It's a tricky thing to get into, re-harmonizing tunes. I didn't want them to sound intellectual. You don't want to mess with tradition too much-but you want to mess with it a little! We couldn't stop vamping at the end; it was Steve's idea to make it a classic 'Part 1' and 'Part 2,' which is what Ray did on 'What'd I Say.'" (Here, the second part, naturally, gets the last word in.)

The next tune, "Let's Go Get Stoned," is another Valerie Simpson-penned hit. "I thought that would be a good title for the album-Let Sco Get Stoned," the guitarist slyly quips, referring back to wilder years. "But I realized my sponsor would be very upset!" he adds, laughing. At one point, Scofield had considered inviting Simpson to sing on the track, but eventually, his performance became far too wicked for most singers to navigate.

"Night Time Is the Right Time" provides an opportunity for Warren Haynes to strut his stuff as both singer and guitarist, with Scofield playing though a Leslie speaker to achieve an organ-like sound. "You Don't Know Me," a big radio hit in the '60s, called for the kind of ballad subtlety that only Aaron Neville could provide. Bringing things to a close, Scofield serves up the timeless "Georgia on My Mind" as a solo showcase. "It's Ray's signature tune," Scofield acknowledges. "But it's also part of the Great American

Songbook, and one of the great jazz standards. And talk about a chord progression! That's was the one I wanted to play all by myself on the guitar, and I wanted to close the record with that."

True to form, however, no sooner has the last note faded out than the indomitable spirit of Ray Charles rises again, in the good hands of John Scofield and his friends. As it should be.