Jazzforschung / Jazz Research 43 (2011)

150 150 International Society for Jazz Research

Márton Szegedi
Die Stilistik von John Scofield

This paper will examine the compositional and improvisational style of American jazz guitarist John Scofield.

John Leavitt Scofield, born in 1951, is considered one of the most important and versatile stylists of the contemporary jazz scene and one of the most popular jazz musicians of his generation. His work spans the blues tradition, swing, folk, soul, funk, hard bop, fusion and avant-garde jazz as well as the modern drum‘n‘ bass movement, transcending the border between jazz and pop music.

Scofield‘s OEuvre comprises as of this writing (2010) about 200 albums, of which 40 have been released under his own name; these, even taken by themselves, are enough to convincingly demonstrate his stylistic heterogeneity. The purpose of this study is the musical analysis and description of Scofield‘s style, based on these primary sources (recordings); in order to minimize redundancy, 35 individual pieces have been selected. This sampling includes notable pieces of varying stylistic characters and improvisations from different recordings of the same piece for comparative purposes. It also allows comparisons between Scofield and other guitarists and reflects a wide chronological period – pieces from Scofield’s entire career, from 1974 to the present day (spring 2010), are included.

The wide-ranging complexity of the music requires its translation into written notation in order to make all conclusions as clear and communicable as possible. The author has therefore performed transcriptions; these serve as the basis of the analysis. The analytical methods are taken from classical musical analysis.

The study has given rise to the following conclusions:

(A) Interpretive technique


Scofield‘s handling of timing – rhythmic anticipation and delay – is the element of his playing that varies most from genre to genre. In binary pieces his playing is almost metronomically exact. In ternary pieces Scofield mainly makes use of microrhythmic delay; tones falling on the beat in an eighth-note line come somewhat later. This tendency is stronger in slow pieces; tones falling on the beat in an eighth-note line come exactly a sixteenth triplet later – a duple realization of the tone sequence.


Scofield‘s use of dynamics is mainly dependent on tempo: In faster pieces the median dynamic is roughly mezzoforte and dynamic changes generally play only a marginal role. Only seldom does he change the dynamic with an effect device, mostly in fusion settings. In slower, ballad-type tempos Scofield makes use of a larger dynamic spectrum. Here, the unexpected placement of accents serves as a disruptive element. These accents are mostly played staccato, coupled with strongly laid-back phrasing. In these contexts a relaxed melodic trend is occasionally contrasted with extremely soft melodic interpolations.

Playing Technique

Scofield‘s faster runs are generally executed mainly by means of hammer-ons and pull-offs in contrast to guitarists such as George Benson or Mike Stern, who tend to articulate each tone in such a run individually.

Octave passages are usually picked, in contrast to the Wes Montgomery style. The bending of tones, often by as much as a minor third, is particularly relevant.

In general technical virtuosity is of secondary importance in Scofield‘s playing: musical coherence and expression have absolute priority.

Theme interpretation

Scofield‘s variations on themes are accomplished primarily with microrhythmic alterations, the modulation of articulations (staccato, legato, accents) and phrase length. He occasionally uses the pauses between phrases for brief melodic interpolations. An alienation of the melody is very rare.


When accompanying other musicians Scofield leans heavily on the bebop tradition: short, largely offbeat two- or three-voiced chordal accents. In more lyrical settings he tends more toward arpeggiated chords.

On quartet recordings in which another instrument plays the melody, Scofield invariably plays unison with the first voice, often supplementing the line with additional voices (mostly thirds, sixths or transitional bass figures) and fills.

(B) Compositional technique


Scofield’s compositions are mainly organized in a „da capo“ format – theme, solo choruses, reprise of the theme. Particularly in pieces consisting of only one section, the theme is often performed additionally between solos and often elaborated with interpolations and interludes.

Thematic sections generally appear in the identical order; however, the reprise often elides a part or parts. Sections almost always form a typical chorus of some description. Improvisations generally take place over the form established in the theme (choruses). Another category of Scofield‘s works features solo sections that do not correlate with the form and harmony of the theme, that instead take place over a single chord or a pendular harmonic pattern.


Scofield‘s rhythmic sense includes the usual jazz characteristics (offsetting, eighth-note lines etc.), which he sometimes distorts to the point of disruption. In these cases dense, hectic phrases alternate with relatively long rests; the use of two meters simultaneously is also a favorite device.

The rhythmic coherence of phrases and sections adheres to a couple of different patterns: in some cases the individual phrases of the theme consist of identical ostinato-like rhythms, with or without superficial modification. In others, however, the rhythm of one section is developed by successive modification of the rhythm of previous sections. In still other cases, there is no rhythmic correlation between different phrases or parts of the form. Scofield uses time signature changes sparingly, generally for surprising effect in interpolations.

Subdivision of the beat depends on the genre currently being played – binary in fusion and funk, ternary in hard bop pieces. Binary and ternary passages are occasionally alternated in the course of a single piece for contrast.


Scofield‘s harmonic language ranges from very simple structures to complex chord progressions: particularly in fusion contexts, segments of the piece or even the entire piece may consist of a single chord or a pendular harmonic pattern. Harmonic complexity, when it appears, can take the following forms:

  1. Reharmonization (usage of chordal synonyms, tritone and mediant substitutions)
  2. Modulation of the key, primarily in thirds
  3. of individual phrases
  4. of thematic segments
  5. of an entire theme or improvisation
  6. Bitonality
  7. Modal harmony (generally consisting of more than one tonal center)
  8. Upper structure chords
  9. Juxtaposition of functional and modal harmony.

In such cases Scofield often contrasts a fairly simple section (consisting of a single chord or pendular vamp) with one that is more complex.

Melodic tendencies

Melodically, Scofield‘s repertoire can be divided into two categories: lyrical, songlike themes with long phrases and wide sweep and more abstract compositions, consisting largely of short, fragmented phrases with few tonal steps and a small range.

Mixtures of these two styles also occur within a single formal segment or from section to section. In these cases, expressive melodies in a major key are followed by displaced minor pentatonics; unison vertical melodies – arpeggiated chords or fourth-based themes – by multivoiced horizontal passages, mostly in the form of constant structures.

The following melodic devices are also worthy of note:

  1. Sections belonging to the theme but including only improvised melody
  2. Compositions or parts thereof consisting mostly of a single repeated rhythmic phrase. Here, a single melodic figure is repeated exactly or modified, based on the harmony, particularly in blues themes.
  3. Two voices inherent in a single-voice melody.
  4. A three-voice melody consists of a descant drone and additional displaced fourths.
  5. The melodies of two parts of the form appear simultaneously and polyphonically in a third part.
  6. Individual parts of the form allude strongly to a composition by someone else; however, Scofield is the composer. Such pieces can be viewed as contrafacts but often include a completely new, original section as well.

(C) Improvisational technique

Tone selection

Scofield places priority on blues pentatonics stemming from the tonic of the piece; indeed, he raises it to a principle. Only in lyrical, ballad-like pieces in major keys does this not apply.

Apart from that, the harmonic structure of improvised sections can be divided into three categories:

  1. When the improvisation takes place over a single chord, Scofield changes tonal centers quickly and fairly often, usually by substitute pentatonics.
  2. Over pendular harmonics he characteristically either plays over the basic harmony or over a single substitute scale for each chord.
  3. Over progressions consisting of more than two chords, Scofield adheres to the written harmony.

For purposes of variation, tonal material in all three categories is enriched by displacement, third and tritone substitutions, chromaticism and usage of the half-tone/whole-tone scale.


The improvisational style is matched to the style of the composed thematics. Thus, dense, virtuosic passages are to be found as well as relaxed, singable motives and fragmentary melodic cells. Scofield also contrasts these methods with one another, for instance fast, usually rubato runs, juxtaposed with shorter, melodious passages serving as melodic/rhythmic points of orientation.

Rests of varying length are occasionally used as surprise effects, as are sudden changes in register and dissonant intervals (b9, 7). Inherent two-voiced harmony using chromaticism (usually in the second voice) and tone repetition are also common. Quotes or paraphrases of a theme are seldom.

Comparisons between different recordings of the same piece reveal that certain motives are typical on certain pieces.


Improvisations generally begin with short phrases using only a few intervals; climaxes are usually achieved through the successive lengthening of phrases and the use of an increasing number of intervals. To increase tension Scofield also continually changes the range and number of voices, gradually increasing the degree of dissonance and/or displacement. The highest pitch in the entire improvisation is often the climax; this may be additional heightened with percussive effects such as noise, harmonic dissonance or flageolets.

Improvisations on studio recordings tend to be shorter, the high point generally reached toward the end of the solo. Live improvisations, on the other hand, are often considerably longer and generally begin at a higher energetic level, with the intensity maintained throughout the course of the solo. The accompanying instruments are also of considerable importance in the buildup of tension.

Solo comparisons

When Scofield performs with another guitarist, his playing style contrasts strongly with that of his collaborator.

* * *

All in all, Scofield’s style is a study in contrasts; simplicity and complexity balance one another. This effect is achieved by the juxtaposition of stylistic elements from various genres and contrary musical parameters: short vs. long phrases, consonance vs. dissonance, density vs. sparseness, few vs. many pitches, linear vs. vertical melody, smaller vs. larger intervals, single-voiced vs. multivoiced playing, singable vs. abstract melody, conventional vs. unconventional or irritating incongruous rhythmic placement, lower vs. upper register, smaller vs. larger range, upwards vs. downwards melody contour, on-the-beat vs. laid-back timing etc.