A Jazz Guitarist Interprets Ray Charles Classics Scott Simon talks with jazz guitarist John Scofield about his album That's What I Say, on which he plays the music of Ray Charles.
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A Jazz Guitarist Interprets Ray Charles Classics

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A Jazz Guitarist Interprets Ray Charles Classics

A Jazz Guitarist Interprets Ray Charles Classics

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Ray Charles was simply one of the best-loved performers of his time. In the year since his death, there's been an Oscar-wining movie about his life and several tribute albums. John Scofield is one of the most respected guitarists in jazz. Over the course of his career he's played with Charlie Mingus, Pat Metheny, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, as well as other improvisational bands including Modesta, Martin & Wood and Government Mule. Ray Charles and John Scofield--put those two talents together and you get an inspired new CD called "That's What I Say: John Scofield plays the music of Ray Charles." Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "Unchain My Heart")

SIMON: That's from "Unchain My Heart" with Larry Goldings on organ, Willie Weeks on bass, Steve Jordan playing drums and John Scofield on guitar. He joins us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JOHN SCOFIELD (Jazz Guitarist): Hi, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And why another tribute album, this one featuring your talents, to Ray Charles?

Mr. SCOFIELD: Well, I'd never done a tribute album before, but it really resonated with me. I'm 53 years old, and we played his music when you learned to play rock 'n' roll in those days. It was part of the common repertoire, the common language of bands in the '60s.

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of the first track, if we can, on this album: "Busted."

(Soundbite of "Busted")

SIMON: Do I have this right: This song at first wasn't going to be on the album?

Mr. SCOFIELD: Right. We had, you know, carefully researched it and had picked 12 songs to be on the record and arranged them. And then we're in the studio making the record, and Steve Jordan--who played drums, but also produced the record--said, `You know, I think we should do "Busted." We should have picked "Busted."' And then we just started to jam and "Busted" came out and we realized we knew it, so we cut it right there and it came out nice--kind of spontaneous version.

SIMON: Is the first time, this album, you've recorded with singers?

Mr. SCOFIELD: Yes. For me it's the first time on any of my records that I've had vocals.

SIMON: Well, what's it like to work with singers? They're famously temperamental, aren't they?

Mr. SCOFIELD: Yeah, but none of these people were.

SIMON: Mavis Staples...

Mr. SCOFIELD: But, yeah, as a...

SIMON: ...Dr. John, Aaron Neville?

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's right. John Mayer, Warren Haynes. You know, the rock bands I was talking about before were all--you know, we had singers and--but as I became a jazz musician, I played instrumentally and was really into that. And we're like, `Oh, we don't have singers in our group. We're cool. We're jazzers.' And so this was a great chance for me at this later stage to get to respond musically to singers and to jam with them.

SIMON: So they...

Mr. SCOFIELD: It was...

SIMON: ...didn't come in and lay down their tracks later...

Mr. SCOFIELD: No, that's...

SIMON: ...which--as is so common these days?

Mr. SCOFIELD: We were able to arrange it so that this was all recorded at the same time, except for one song, "What'd I Say," which all the singers are on, and they all make a--everybody sings a verse, and we had to overdub that one. But the rest was done in real time in a room together with the input from the singers, you know, on the arrangement and on the outcoming music.

SIMON: It's fortuitous that you should mention "What'd I Say," because guess what we have cued up?

Mr. SCOFIELD: Oh, no kidding. Really?

SIMON: Through the magic...

Mr. SCOFIELD: Let's do it.

SIMON: ...of radio.

(Soundbite of "What'd I Say")

Unidentified Singer #1: (Singing) Hey, mama, don't you treat me wrong. Gonna love your daddy all night long, all right. Hey, hey, all right.

Unidentified Singer #2: (Singing) I need a girl with a diamond ring. She know how to shake that thing. Come on, do right. Come on, do right now. Give me what I need.

Unidentified Singer #3: (Singing) Tell your mama, tell your pa, we're gonna send ya back to Arkansas--hey, hey--if you don't do right. If you don't do right, hey-ey-ey.

Unidentified Singer #4: (Singing) When you're sitting in misery, come on, babe, now sit by me now. Oh, yeah. All right. What'd I say?

SIMON: You know, it almost sounds as if they're at a party and everybody's kind of taking their turn between swigs of a beverage.

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's it. Well, it's the ultimate party song, "What'd I Say," you know?

SIMON: Let me ask you about the arranging, because so many of these are signature tunes of Ray Charles. People almost just can't hear these songs done by anybody else, done differently. Must be daunting to try and take a different tack on them.

Mr. SCOFIELD: Well, you know, not for me. You know, in a way, it was--I knew that we weren't going to do Ray's literal versions of any of the tunes because that wouldn't be right. And why this project appealed to me was because Ray's music is really kind of folkloric, you know? They're easy blues forms and straight-ahead song forms, and this is the--what you can do with jazz, you know, is take those traditional forms and rearrange them over and over again. And that's why there were so many options to treat each one of these songs a different way.

SIMON: There's another song I'd like to play. I don't want to introduce it too much. Just as soon as people hear it, I'm wondering if we can start the guessing game going as to who is singing.

(Soundbite of "I Don't Need No Doctor")

Mr. JOHN MAYER (Singer): (Singing) I don't need no doctor 'cause I know what's ailing me. I don't need no doctor 'cause I know what's ailing me.

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's John Mayer.

SIMON: As he's not been heard before, I think it's safe to say.

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's right, yeah. A lot of people didn't recognize that, that it was John singing, because his songs, he sings kind of, you know, back and real whispery. But he really sang out full on this one. And I think it's a little bit my fault because I picked a key that was a little higher than he normally plays. And selfishly I picked that key because my guitar part sounded good for the arrangement. I could only play it in E, you know? But he was--no, he was very, very nice, and said, `Well, I'll try it, you know, but I gotta shout it out.' And he did, and it sounded great.

(Soundbite of "I Don't Need No Doctor")

Mr. MAYER: (Singing) Now the doctor said I need rest before I need her tenderness. Put me on the critical list, where all I need is her sweet kiss. He gave me a medicated lotion, but it didn't soothe my emotion, yeah-a-ah.

SIMON: You wrote that Ray Charles was--I think you called him the height of honest expression.

Mr. SCOFIELD: Mmm. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

SIMON: Let me try and draw you out about that, because the fact is Ray Charles had to sing his standards...

Mr. SCOFIELD: Every night, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah, tens of thousands--hundreds of thousands of times over the years, and...

Mr. SCOFIELD: Yeah. You know, I don't even know if he's thinking about the words at the point because the music's not just about the words, as we know. It's a song and the notes and the feeling. It just seems for real. You get the message. I'm not even sure what the message is, but you feel it.

SIMON: I'm told you have your guitar there.

Mr. SCOFIELD: Yup. It's here. And I'd like...

SIMON: You know what we'd like to hear...

Mr. SCOFIELD: Mm-hmm. What would you like to hear?

SIMON: ...and I believe you have thoughtfully prepared for...


SIMON: ...is "Georgia on My Mind."

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's right. That's what I'm going to play.

SIMON: You'll get to--you get to play this solo on the album, don't you?

Mr. SCOFIELD: That's right, yeah. I love this song. It's, you know, Hoagy Carmichael--a great jazz standard before Ray got to it, but Ray made it his own.

(Soundbite of guitar note)

Mr. SCOFIELD: Ready?

SIMON: Yeah, please.

(Soundbite of live guitar performance of "Georgia on My Mind")

SIMON: Thank you, Mr. Scofield.

Mr. SCOFIELD: Great to talk to you, too.

SIMON: John Scofield. His latest release is "That's What I Say: John Scofield plays the music of Ray Charles." For more cuts from the CD, you can visit our Web site, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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