It’s hard to say whether guitarist John Scofield’s age (he just turned 66) seems wrong because surely he’s older or surely he’s younger. On the one hand, he was playing with the likes of Gerry Mulligan and early fusion player in the 1970s, so he must be older. On the other hand, he’s one of the few real “jazz” musicians that music fans in their 20s might know from seeing him at outdoor festivals and in rock palaces like DC’s 930 Club. The music, certainly the meat and potatoes stuff on his new Combo 66, is timely though. So, age be damned.
This set is core Scofield in every way. He plays here with longtime collaborator, Bill Stewart, on drums. The bassist is Vicente Archer, a generation younger but from Woodstock, New York, which is Scofield’s neighborhood these days. Archer is a member of Robert Glasper’s acoustic trio and has a long history with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and alto saxophone master Donald Harrison. The pianist and organist in the band is Gerald Clayton, almost half Sco’s age and part of the new jazz contingent, playing with Ambrose Akinmusire and Gretchen Parlato, as well as having strong mainstream chops. The band, new and old, seems to pull from all the right places and falls together like a group of old friends. The music is comfortable like your oldest, happiest pair of khaki pants, but it’s also hip as all get-out, like those khakis Miles Davis wore when he was recording in the late 1950s.
Scofield’s popular success of the last 20 years has been built on his effortless and without-compromise appeal to a generation of jam-band fans (read: Deadheads and Phishheads whose musical interests run to New Orleans funk, the Allman Brothers Band, and strong, melodic improvising generally), beginning with his better-the-more-you-listen-to-it 1998 album A Go Go, recorded with Medeski Martin and Wood. Before then, Scofield had already played electrified fusion, uncompromising modern jazz, and much more, including a stint on Blue Note Records that found him doing just about everything a late 20th-century jazz player could do. He went on to record other work with Medeski Martin and Wood and, acknowledging his new fan base, had a band called “UberJam” for a while.
Recent years, however, have seen Scofield playing music that veers back toward straight-ahead jazz but, miraculously perhaps, still carries the lessons and sheer fun of the playful jam-jazz that reminds us that the form still can move feet as well as the heart. Combo 66 is right in that sweet spot. Come one, come all, it’s fabulous.
Clayton plays Hammond B3 organ on three of the nine tracks, but that isn’t an accounting of how much of the date is funky versus swinging. With Stewart on the kit, it is somehow always both.
The grooving opener, “Can’t Dance”, is a swinger with a sexy throb at its heart. The first part of the tune is a light melody that rides over Stewart’s ticking ride cymbal and Clayton’s swirling, fuzzy organ, but it is contrasted with a funky interlude section that has B3, guitar, and bass playing a unison lick that could be from a James Brown side. Scofield’s solo is hummably great, winding up and down in memorable hooks, high squiggles, and fuzz-toned blue notes. The rhythm section below him does everything a great jazz trio can do: call-and-response, playful rhythmic prodding and accenting, that push-pull feeling of impeccable swing. The funk lick jumps in at the end to launch Clayton, who starts his solo with a hip, choked sound using only a few organ stops, meeting the lick on the other side of a tasty improvisation.
Clayton’s piano never drags the tunes here out of a sense of soulfulness. “Willa Jean”, for example, starts with a grimy sound from Scofield’s guitar, establishing a swaying, swampy 6/8 time. Clayton stays low in the piano’s register as Sco plays the bluesy melody, only rising up into a jazz feeling for the first solo. The piano is like daylight breaking clear through the fog as it surges up into a higher register. The highlight of the tune, however, is a breakdown for Archer’s acoustic bass and Stewart’s drums—not even a solo, really—just a laying bare of the rhythmic throb that has been holding it all together.
“Uncle Southern” evokes a similar feeling. It’s a loping waltz with Clayton playing the understated organ that provides Stewart lots of opportunity to pop the time with surges of cymbal and snare. Like “Kentucky Waltz”, this tune pulls a hipness from old-time feeling, but the band gives it a pop that makes it feel danceable. “New Waltzo” is, of course, another tune in three with Clayton’s B3, this time faster and dirtier in tone. Even at this tempo, Scofield can move into gorgeous double-time phrasing at will during his solo, creating the kind of sudden rush of melodic invention that makes his playing so delectable. Clayton’s organ sound here warbles beautifully through some delicious distortion and then, with more stops pulled out, develops a gritty tone that encourages Sco to comp more aggressively before reentering.
Several of the tunes swing like mad. “Icons at the Fair” is a sharp, boppish theme that bounces on Archer’s sturdy walking bass and Stewart’s uber-responsive cymbal swing and tom-tom accents. Clayton is in there too; as Scofield solos, he and Stewart seem to be attached at the hip, a peanut gallery of asides and commentary that adds to the main story told by the guitar. Clayton’s solo shows why he’s so versatile—he hammers on repeated notes like a next-generation Chick Corea but also flashes the harmonic skills of a younger generation of jazz impressionists. “Dang Swing” is a cooking blues built on a single guitar line that ends in a tasty, bent twang. In each of the solos, there are choruses where the band stops dead on the one and lets the guitar or piano play over four bars of silence, three times each. Scofield uses those little highlights to bend his strings, nasty and blue, to show exactly why fans can’t resist him. Clayton uses these silences to highlight his ability to play with contrapuntal, two-handed elegance. Is it just a band showing off a bit? Why not? “King of Belgium” (a reference to guitarist Django Reinhardt?) is more traditional swing with some lovely traded two-bar phrases between guitar and piano toward the end.
There is only one true ballad here, but it is enchanting. “I’m Sleeping In” moves with stately grace, outlining a melody that sits squarely between a classic Tin Pan Alley tune and a rock era classic that could have been written by Paul Simon. It begs for lyrics, but the band infuses it with a melancholy feeling, Clayton’s piano barely chiming in the background but providing the whisper of harmony that color the tune with implied sadness.
John Scofield makes this kind of album-length delight seem tossed-off, casual, easy-as-pie. He wrote each appealing theme, and his worn-in guitar tone dominates every track like the voice of a favorite actor—his guitar sound is arguably the Morgan Freeman jazz, wise and great to hear, never tiring but never dull.
It seems like you’ve been hearing it forever, yet it doesn’t sound dated. John Scofield, at 66, isn’t old yet but he’s an old friend. You’ll be inviting him over again and again.