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John Scofield is one of the most renowned guitarists in modern jazz. Not only has he been the leader on such albums as "Groove Elation," "Meant to Be" and "Loud Jazz," he's also an in-demand sideman who's worked with artists ranging from Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and Charles Mingus to Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock and Billy Cobham.
Oh, and don't forget to add New London's Carl Franklin to that list.
Indeed, Scofield recently came to Franklin's PWOP Studios to play as a guest artist on Franklin's just-out new solo album, "Been a While."
Scofield's performance, on a bubbling track called "Chain Reaction," was a dream come true for Franklin - a longtime fan - not to mention for the other local musicians playing that day.
"We had to do several takes of the song," Franklin laughs, "because we were all either trying too hard to impress Sco or we couldn't take our eyes off of him - or both."
The tune was in fact cut live by a full band comprised of excellent area players who frequently perform in the Franklin Brothers, a band Carl founded with his brother, Jay. Drummer Matt Covey, bassist Andrew Chaney, trumpeter Doug Woolverton - along with Jay on keyboards and Carl on acoustic guitar - worked for several hours on "Chain Reaction," with Scofield making everyone relaxed with his friendly nature, jokes and stories from the road.
If it was a definite coup for a "local" musician to secure the services of a superstar like Scofield, the guitarist says he was happy to do the date.
"Carl asked me to play on the record, just like anyone else would. I'm hire-able," Scofield says by phone from his home in New York. "At the same time, I don't do as many sideman dates anymore. But Carl's funk/jazz/pop stuff is interesting to me. He's really good, and the guys in his band are really good."
Franklin became casually acquainted with Scofield through a mutual friend. After they met, Franklin started emailing Scofield and ultimately found the courage to send along music, including excerpts from the then-impending Franklin Brothers album called "Lifeboat to Nowhere." It occurred to Franklin to ask Scofield if he would consider contributing liner notes for the record.
Though Scofield said the music was great, he declined, saying it was a personal policy not to write liner notes. Franklin understood and later sent Scofield tapes of newer material - songs that would become the "Been a While" CD.
"He kept writing back that he really liked the music, with exclamation points, and I definitely got the impression he was sincere," Franklin says. "I only found out much later that, typically, Scofield absolutely doesn't listen to any unsolicited material - which is even more flattering."
Franklin had reached a point in the recording of "Been a While" where it was almost ready, but he instinctively felt the album needed one more song. He had just the tune in mind, and he decided to approach Scofield in person and ask him if he would play on it.
"I'd left the song off the album because, even though I wrote it, I couldn't play it! It was an instrumental but, for me as a musician, it was too fast and had too many chords," Franklin says. "It seemed like the perfect song for Scofield."
Franklin arranged to attend a Scofield concert in Montreal; they met backstage after the show, and the guitarist agreed to do the session. Franklin gave him a demo of the song, and they agreed to meet the next morning for breakfast. It was then that Scofield told Franklin that, while he liked the song, he'd rather play on a track that featured Franklin singing.
"I thought, 'John Scofield just agreed to play on my album!'" Franklin says. "Hell, I'll write a new song!"
"Chain Reaction" is a tune where each verse describes a different narrative component that seems disassociated from the others. It was one of those writing exercises, Franklin says, where even he didn't know what it all meant until he was finished - and memories and dreams from his past suddenly coalesced.
"It's a song about me learning to listen and pay attention," Franklin says. "I followed the thread of the song, and it all made sense. I think, today, as people, we've stopped listening to ourselves and what life and our bodies are telling us."
Musically, the song fits the bouncy, groove-happy sound of the whole album, and Scofield performs splendidly not just from an ensemble standpoint, but also with his signature solos and ad-lib fills. Highlights include a series of back-and-forth riffs between the guitarist and trumpeter Woolverton. Splendid stuff.
"I really dig the song and the album," Scofield says. "I never understood how someone like Carl has music as a hobby and this whole other life (working with computer technology). How did he get so good? His music is so beautiful. I spend all my time focused on music and can barely get by."
If Scofield's own career self-assessment is not an accurate representation of his considerable success, his attempt to compliment Franklin is definitely sincere.
Most important, from an artistic standpoint, "Chain Reaction" fits seamlessly on a nine-song record that features six Franklin originals and clever interpretations of songs by Louis Armstrong ("Big Butter and Egg Man"), Lennon/McCartney ("Drive My Car") and Alan Lomax ("The Titanic"). The album is available at carlfranklin.com and has been receiving airplay via online stations such as Pandora and Jango.
Fans and first-time listeners will immediately note stylistic similarities to sophisticated pop acts such as Steely Dan, Larry Carlton and Galactic, though there is a distinctive Franklin DNA that works beautifully with the distinctive talents of his core musicians.
"Most of the songs are 'up' songs," Franklin says. "I wanted the sound of the songs and the album to lift your spirits up. It's easy to write songs that complain. On the other hand, being musically positive means you run the risk of sounding corny. And some of the songs do have serious aspects, lyrically. But music is a celebration, and I hope 'Been a While' reflects that. The joy has to be real, and it has to come from the music."
Guitarist John Scofield has enjoyed a career wherein he's played with some of the brightest stars in the jazz Milky Way - including three whose personalities were notoriously flinty: Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and Charles Mingus.
In celebration of their prickly personnae, and because we live in a time when most television shows, films or books center around zombies, Scofield was asked the following ridiculous question:
If you were running from zombies and had to choose between Davis, Mingus and Pastorius to help you fight, which of the three would you pick?
"You know what, man?" Scofield laughs. "Those three guys were almost equally mean. With any of them, the zombies would be in trouble. But let's see ..."
Scofield thinks for a minute and says, "Miles talked a good game, but he was getting on in years when I played with him. Mingus was crazy, and he always had a knife on him, so that's good. But both of them were fat and in not-great shape.
"You know what? If Mingus was crazy, Jaco was absolutely out of his mind. And his body was like a rock - all muscle and sinew from swimming in the Atlantic Ocean when he lived in Florida. I'd have to go with Jaco."
- Rick Koster