John Scofield must have enjoyed hanging out with Medeski, Martin and Wood, his bandmates on 1998’s A Go Go, because he is back with another young-and-funky crew for his latest, Bump. On the new release, veteran jazz guitarist Scofield has brought together, in various combinations, members of the funk jam-band Deep Banana Blackout (from that funky-est of places, Norwalk, Connecticut), Sex Mob and Soul Coughing, along with Chris Wood (Medeski, Martin and Wood), back for another go-round. The results don’t exactly break new ground, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the intention either.
The opener, “Three Sisters,” sets the tone for this outing. There is nothing fussy here, just a straight up funk groove for Scofield to play lead over, while he overdubs himself playing rhythm on acoustic guitar. The wonderfully distinct Scofield sound is there, playing high in the register, varying his attack with staccato notes and fuzzy riffing chords, always pushing the harmonics, while allowing the rhythm section to keep the hips shaking. The problem is, no one playing around him sounds like they are is really challenging Scofield. It’s fine to go out and record with fresh, young musicians, but if they are merely there to create a backdrop for Scofield to be the same old reliable Scofield, then what’s the point?
Most of the tunes are so straightforward in structure that a listener might wonder if Scofield did not have a lot of musical faith in his sidemen. Or, perhaps, they were there only to create a sound, rather than to participate in the give-and-take of music-making. In fact, when Tony Scherr (Sex Mob’s bass player) takes the tiniest of solos in the last moments of the seven-minute “Groan Man,” at about the half-way mark of Bump, it is a bit startling because up to that point no one, aside from Scofield, has really been show-cased.
The only time that Scofield sounds like he is ready to take a few chances, on the short and remarkably titled “Kilgeffen,” the groove is set aside in favour of some explorations in sound with the Sex Mob rhythm section and Mark De Gli Antoni (Soul Coughing) on keyboard sampler. But then, when we move directly into “We Are Not Alone,” we settle back into a nice mid-tempo groove that, guess what, features more Scofield.
While featuring Scofield is, of course, rarely a problem, in the context of Bump it leaves the listener with a sense of missed opportunity. You can be sure that all the players working here with the master learned a great deal, and will be better for it. Yet, it is not evident that Scofield learned anything. That is more than a disappointment, it is a point of concern. When you stop listening to others and challenging your own progress, it won’t take too long to simply sound like yourself over and over and over again.