[4 December 2006]
In 1997, John Scofield hit gold. Given that the jazz guitarist had previously played and recorded with Miles Davis and was signed to one of the few jazz major labels (Verve), he hardly needed his “big break”. Still, there it was. A Go Go was Scofield’s second Verve disc after a brilliant run with Blue Note, and the label paired him with the rising stars Medeski Martin & Wood, an organ trio that was just starting to capture the imagination of the jam band crowd that followed the Grateful Dead and Phish. Scofield had played plenty of funk rhythms before, including some loosey-goose N’awlins funk (on his Gramavision disc Out There) that is favored by MMW. It could have been just another major label “concept album”, except that A Go Go was a stone brilliant record—a perfect setting of ear-snagging themes in a loose and funky groove. In a modest, tossed-off way, A Go Go was the best jazz record of the ‘90s to crossover to non-jazz listeners. Now, almost a decade later, the quartet is back on the road, and has fresh wax from the studio, while trying to capture lightening a second time out.
Out Louder is no A Go Go, but it will do. Particularly because Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood are now roaming the nation, playing to packed houses, making the groove live. (At Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in mid-November, they played two long sets, covering most of both albums along the way; no one left dissatisfied). The new record, which labels the band as one of co-equals, is honest. Scofield is no longer out front, but blended into the group. Fully half of the tunes are credited to all four musicians—and you know what that means: this disc was largely created in the studio with jams leading to tunes, organically. As a result, Out Louder sounds less like jazz (and less like Scofield’s traditional self) than it does like the modern groove music that both participants would move toward after A Go Go.
In the last nine years, MMW has become a major jam-band draw, packing rock clubs and drawing cheers from younger and younger crowds that don’t know that keyboardist John Medeski often records with John Zorn and other “downtown” jazz cats, or that Billy Martin’s recent disc with his band Socket contains 40 minutes of screech and clatter. John Scofield, at the same time, followed MMW’s lead, even recording an album, Uberjam, that placed him well beyond his jazz roots. Both acts have had a similar quality on records and in concert—that of being musicians who elevate simple material that lesser talents would mangle, or only pretend to understand. In their hands, “jam band” verities actually seem better than the pot smoke hanging over the crowd that watches them.
And so, Out Louder begins with assured promise. “Little Walter Rides Again” could be an A Go Go outtake, a Scofield tune built out of jabbing guitar phrases and dueling staccato organ responses. At under four minutes, however, the track only allows the band to chit-chat some, not to build up a full head of steam. The same is true of several other tunes: “Miles Behind” (a simulacrum of the Davis band circa 1972), “In Case the World Changes Its Mind” (a melodica feature for Medeski), and the group’s take on Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It”, a sop for the jam band crowd if ever there was one. Lord knows, there’s nothing wrong with a jammy live act keeping its studio work concise and clear, but with folks who improvise as well together as MSMW, it feels a bit of a cheat.
Other songs come through just right, however. You’d have to be in a grumpy mood indeed not to be taken with “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing”, a New Orleans standard that the band works to a grooving worry. Martin sets up an impossibly funky second line snap, and Wood drops his acoustic sound into the fat holes of the backbeat. Nearly as fine is the eerie “Hanuman”, which leads off with the sound of a bass clarinet rumbling toward resolution. Martin and Wood play double time, while the organ and samples lay like lush carpet beneath Scofield’s probing, arcing, adventurous solo. “Down the Tube” is the longest and most groovalicious track—a complex collage of noises, improvising and textural detritus set over a funk beat, and the closest thing to the band in adventurous live action.
There are curiosities too. “Julia”, the John Lennon song from The White Album, is appropriately lyrical—Scofield playing pretty over organ sustains and brushes—but might have been played by anyone. “Tequila and Chocolate” is a samba penned by Wood, begun by him solo on his Hofner bass, with Medeski playing a tinny roller-rink organ sound. Soon enough, the song resolves into a nearly themeless Brazilian groove that sounds somewhat cobbled together, harmonically and otherwise. Once Scofield really gets going, two-thirds of the way through, your investment is repaid, but it does make you wonder why MMW often has to add so much fancy-pants noodling to every track. It is almost as if the band worries about playing “straight” bossa nova for fear that it won’t seem edgy enough.
For me, the disc’s best moment may be “Cachaca”, which uses groove and strident organ sounds (on the one, very MMW, hand) but also uses acoustic piano articulating complex harmonies and double-stopped acoustic bass (on the other, more modern-jazz hand) to create an amalgam that should push the jam band crowd to hear their heroes in a slightly new way.
On “Cachaca”, MMW and Scofield deliver pleasures, but also lessons ... a combination that jazz musicians are always trying to get just right. It seems the right way for this very popular band—a band which is more than happy to dole out the easy funky groove—to move ahead of itself yet again. MSMW, together, have the chance to make the finest kind of “fusion” music, where the best of both (many!) worlds shines through.