Fame is a strange thing for a real jazz musician in 2011. It isn’t the same thing as critical acclaim, which is rare enough and somewhat prized but doesn’t sell as much as a single disc. Fame suggests a public acknowledgment beyond the aficionados, a level of the magic and thrill that a pop star takes for granted.
These days? Jazz instrumentalists would barely know fame if it spray-painted “Bird Lives” on their Selmer Mark VIs.
But guitarist John Scofield comes pretty close. Scofield is the real jazz deal: he first recorded with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker (1974), he played on one of Charles Mingus’s last recordings (1977), he put in a famous stint with post-comeback Miles Davis (1982-85), and he recorded many albums for jazz’s two premiere modern labels (Blue Note and Verve) with leading contemporaries such as Joe Lovano, Pat Metheny and many others. Through all that, he never shied away from electric/fusion dates (he started as a blues player) and ultimately, hit on a path to a kind of fame.
In 1997, Scofield recorded A Go Go with the popular trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. It’s a brilliant record, deserving of a wide audience. And it came out at a time when MMW was amidst building a huge audience with the “jam band” crowd. Scofield, with his stinging guitar, his dancing sense of rhythm, and his catchy compositions, not only fit right in with MMW, but he became jam star on his own.
And for a while there, it looked like jammy fame might be a wrong turn for Sco. Despite continued detours back to more “swinging” jazz, A Go Go was followed by a series of less-and-less joyful funk outings. Bump got some New Orleans groove going in 2000, but then 2002’s Überjam was more thuddingly monotonous. A live outing for the Über band on Up All Night (2003) confirmed what I heard in a live concert that year: that Scofield as a jam player was nothing special.
But—despite his genuine fame on the jam scene—Scofield remains so much more than that. His latest recording, A Moment’s Peace, makes this wonderfully, wholly clear. It is the most complete and nuanced recording by Scofield in years—and it’s neither a truly “traditional” record nor any kind of glance to the past. It is a bit quieter than his recent releases, but that doesn’t make it retrograde or safe. In fact, as lovely as A Moment’s Peace sounds, it is Scofield’s boldest statement in over a decade.
The album closes with a preciously idiosyncratic “I Loves You, Porgy” on which Scofield and organist Larry Goldings exchange commentary against a nearly tempo-less backdrop painted by Brian Blade’s drums and Scott Colley on acoustic bass. Golding’s B3 is otherworldly and slightly atonal, making the Gershwin tune seem like it was unearthed from Martian soil. Scofield plays with his signature blend of delicacy and bluntness, fuzzing out a few notes here and there while still getting a sound that seems to rise off his strings with physical clarity.
The band’s treatment of standards is similarly quirky and strong throughout. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is given a fresh take—with Goldings playing a pulsing kind-of-reggae offbeat figure throughout. Blade’s rhythm approach, however, works somewhat against that groove, with jazz accents and melodic rolls acting like a gentle version of what Elvin Jones might have played on this kind of tune. Goldings solos memorably over the “A” sections, setting up Sco for a fluid and sharp statement on the bridge.
Both “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and “I Want to Talk About You” are played in a more conventional jazz style, but both are superb. “Gee Baby” catches Scofield in note-bending mood, like a weirder, subtler B.B. King. Every note is clear and tangy. The Eckstine tune moves Goldings over to piano, where he is just fine. Colley comes through in the mix more completely, letting the partnership with Blade shine at mid-tempo. As Scofield tackles the tougher harmonic path on “Talk About You”, the rest of the band sets up beautiful polyrhythms behind him. Now, this is no jam band in the popular sense, but the group dynamics and sense of play here are outstanding. Everyone in the band is cooking, but there isn’t a cliché in sight.
This is a band that is exceptional at setting a mood. Blade’s mallet work combines with Goldings piano to prepare Sco for a lovely reading of “Throw It Away”, a tune by Abbey Lincoln. Carla Bley’s “Lawns” gets a treatment that is quietly warm, with just a hint of strut in its step. And several Scofiend originals are typically hard to get out of your head. “Johan” has a breathtaking melody that flows from the guitar naturally even as it reminds you of no other tune you’ve heard. “Simply Put” is a pop song, essentially—simple, clear and a real ear-worm—but over a pulsing Latin feel. And “Plain Song” has some of the open feeling that you might associate with Pat Metheny’s writing but wedded to a contrasting bridge and then a strutting drum feel on the solo that takes the tune into a different realm.
In a much quieter way than on A Go Go, A Moment’s Peace makes the case that John Scofield is a jazz star who has assimilated a horizon full of influences into a thrilling personal style. This recording feels, however, generously balanced between groove and swing, between melody and texture. In Brian Blade, Scott Colley and Larry Goldings, Scofield has a dream band for going in any direction he chooses within any song. That 360-degree vision of music is a good definition for “jazz” in 2011. And John Scofield, famous or otherwise, is waving that flag on A Moment’s Peace.