John Scofield's new jazz jams
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 11, 2002) – One of the rare pleasures that the jam-band phenomenon has brought to serious jazz listeners has been the spotlight it has afforded a few veterans who have found themselves in the unusual position of being recognized as “elder statesmen” of jam.

Guitarist John Scofield is one of these. Scofield boasts an impressive resume, having worked with the likes of Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Gerry Mulligan, McCoy Tyner and, most noticeably, Miles Davis, with whom Scofield toured for three-and-a-half years beginning in 1982. In addition, since the late 1970s, Scofield has been a bandleader and collaborator with the likes of Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano.

But it was undoubtedly his work with jam-band avatars Medeski, Martin and Wood – an authentic jazz trio that itself got over to the jam crowd in an opening slot on a tour by the band Phish – that has attracted the attention of thousands of twenty-somethings to bald, unassuming and genial guitarist. Scofield played a wide variety of music in the past, but his work with jazz-rock fusion meant that he didn’t have to stretch too far to cater to the simple tastes of the jam-band crowd, and by this past summer, he was headlining jam-band festivals including BerkFest.

Scofield has also played Club Helsinki several times, and he returned for a two-night stand earlier this week. He explained to the crowd that of all the nightclubs in the world that would have opened their doors to him for such a project, he chose Helsinki to rehearse his band for a recording session later in the week because he loves the room, the audience, and the food. In addition to the group’s shows on Monday and Tuesday night, the musicians reportedly spent hours during the days jamming at the club in preparation for recording their next album.

In their first set on Tuesday night, the musicians played all new music.
By now Scofield’s jazz-rock jams boast a distinctive vocabulary and grammar. They are built on grooves borrowed from functional party music – r&b, funk and disco – grooves and textures that are deconstructed and then reconstructed into something transcending the mundane.

The first number, which was called something like “Chumpsky,” was marked by a typical ascending and descending melodic line played by Scofield, who has patented a signature tone with his axe – a little bit phat and a little bit funny. If a note can have a smile, his notes grin widely. Drummer Adam Deitch and bassist Andy Hess laid down a New Orleans Mardi Gras rhythm, over which Scofield ran longer and wider melodic runs that always featured one or two unexpected notes, introducing a non-conventional modality into the song, while second guitarist Avi Bortnick played rhythmic, wah-wah drenched riffs underneath.

Bortnick opened “Miso Horny” – which Scofield said lifted the groove from a 2 Live Crew number – with some sampled electronica beats, before Scofield’s guitar began singing the melody over much more skittery, jittery rhythms. Bortnick twiddled knobs throughout the song, replicating turntable effects and other percussive sounds, but on this number, Scofield’s guitar seemed unmoored from what the rest of the band was doing.

“The Creeper” opened with psychedelic synthesized samples before galloping percussion kicked in for a drum-n-bass rhythm, and Scofield noodled a spacy jam over echoey chords courtesy of Bortnick. “Freakin’ Disco,” as the name suggests, was powered by a hypercharged dance beat over which Scofield and Bortnick sprinkled fast lines and riffs.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 12, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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