[5 May 2014]
It was far from a typical night Sunday night at the University of California’s San Diego campus with the John Scofield Uberjam Band in town. The Loft is an on-campus venue with a small stage set in a modern pub atmosphere. But Scofield apparently sold too many tickets for the venue, so the show had to be moved to an adjacent ballroom across the hall.
There was a proficient student jazz band opening the show but no bar inside the ballroom, not to mention no drinks of any kind allowed except for bottled water. Most ticket holders were therefore inclined to idle at the Loft’s bar while waiting for the headliner. The Loft had a heady beer selection that would put some other local venues to shame (such as The Belly Up Tavern, House of Blues and Winston’s Beach Club), and excellent food to boot. It would have been a perfect setting for a show, compared to the featureless ballroom.
Fans had to play the hand they’d been dealt though and most considered themselves lucky that Scofield was visiting San Diego in the first place. He may still fly under the radar as far as the general public goes, but the virtuoso guitarist has been big in the jazz scene for decades. He’s raised his profile with the jamrock crowd over the past decade by recording and touring with the ever popular trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, as well as playing some gigs with Phil Lesh. Scofield first toured with the Grateful Dead bassist in 2005, with such acclaim that a spring 2006 show at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater was released on DVD.
Scofield was in fact en route to play a trio of gigs with Phil Lesh & Friends in Las Vegas the following weekend after this show. A short run with his own Uberjam Band seemed like the perfect way to warm up for such intrepid musical adventures. The set mainly featured tunes from Scofield’s Uberjam Deux album released last summer, and funky material ripe for jamming it is.
“I was spurred on in this direction by my collaboration with Miles Davis among others. I’m from the fusion generation! If I were to tag a ‘concept’ for the band, it would be exploring different forms of groove music. We get into funk, afro beat, reggae, house music, RnB….and a lot of what’s in between,” said Scofield in a press release about the album. “I get a real kick watching my audience grooving while knowing that this holds up as jazz – it’s not just dance music.”
Scofield toured with Miles Davis in the ‘80s and a jazz fusion pedigree doesn’t get more legit than that. The music did present an interesting paradox. The ballroom had been filled with seats, so most seemed to feel they should stay seated as if attending a jazz show. But the while the music certainly has a jazzy flair, it’s also got more of a groove than most jazz. The rock ‘n’ roll crowd was therefore represented with a handful of stragglers who stood and danced in the back for most of the show, due to the fact that the music tended to be too groovy to sit still for.
The quartet opened with the super funky “Snake Dance”, which had an upbeat groove that led into a spacey psychedelic jam. Guitarists who are equally adept with both jazz and funk are a rare commodity and Scofield is an ace in both categories. He introduced one song by speaking of how the band wrote the tune only to end up fearing that they’d stolen an Al Green song. But then they decided it was merely influenced by the RnB great and dubbed the soulful tune “Al Green Song”. The tributes continued with “Curtis Knew” for Curtis Mayfield, which started slow but then turned a corner into an uptempo jam with some of Scofield’s tastiest licks.
The jam evolved into another jam that seemed more influenced by Scofield’s work with Miles Davis, with whom he toured from 1982-85. The fiery second jam recalled the energetic sound and spacey fusion of of Davis’ Tribute to Jack Johnson and Bitches Brew albums, creating an impressive musical fusion. A peak highlight occurred with “Boogie Stupid”, a groovy number that sounds like a cross between the Grateful Dead’s “Loose Lucy” and Phish’s “Bathtub Gin”. The band clicked here for one of the top jams of the night and you could see a smile on Scofield’s face, pleased with how the the dancers in the back were moving and grooving.
The common denominator throughout was the stellar lead guitar from Scofield. The man has got serious chops, but he plays with a great sense of feel and sonic spacing that eludes many guitar shredders. Few guitarists can make every note count like Scofield does. He introduced “Polo Towers” as the name of a spot in Las Vegas and mentioned the upcoming Vegas gigs with Lesh, receiving some positive feedback from those in the crowd making the junket to Sin City. The tune had a darker bluesier vibe for a nice change of pace.
The band wrapped the show with the new album’s “Endless Summer”, a tune that uniquely blends an up-tempo beat with a laid back groove. It had a vibe of jazz cowboys riding off into the sunset, a fitting way to end the show. Those headed to Vegas the following weekend got a great preview of what was in store, while those who could only catch this show got a treat in its own right.