John Scofield Renews the Jazz Guitar Trio on ‘Swallow Tales’

The jazz guitar trio is a classic format, and John Scofield, Steve Swallow, and Bill Stewart are as well-equipped to venerate it and renew it a bit on Swallow Tales.

Swallow Tales
John Scofield
12 June 2020

The first time I heard guitarist John Scofield, he was playing on an unusual date on CTI Records, working as a sideman with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on a Carnegie Hall concert that reunited that saxophone/trumpet duo along with a fleet rhythm section including 24-year-old Scofield, reasonably fresh out of Berklee. On a tune like “It’s Sandy at the Beach”, the young guitarist sounded like a revelation: as fleet and flowing as Pat Martino, with some Wes Montgomery blues playing there but also hinting at the sting of rock that we all loved about John McLaughlin jamming with Miles Davis or his own Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Was it already obvious that Scofield had the tools to assemble, gorgeously, modern jazz guitar and critical vocabulary of the electric guitar in rock, funk, and other music that had made the instrument the essential one in American music of that time? John Abercrombie was similar and a little older, Pat Metheny was a few years younger, and Bill Frisell was also born in 1951—each seemed to be mapping out a similar jazz/plus path. Over time, Metheny became a bit of a star, Abercrombie moved more fully into a role as an atmospheric player in the jazz scene, and Frisell came to define a new genre where chamber jazz became Americana. It was Scofield who straddled the divide with the most agility. He played straight-ahead jazz, jazz-rock fusion, funk and jam music, impressionistic/atmospheric improvised music, and blues tracks with singers. He even played with Miles Davis.

All three of those other guitarists started their careers with long tenures recording for ECM Records, the esteemed label that has a famously wonderful sound. In a twist, Swallow Tales marks Scofield’s first recording for ECM as a leader, though he has played with others on the label for years. And he arrives with a date that is as relaxed a recording as he has ever made. He is reunited with two friends: melodic drummer Bill Stewart, and electric bassist Steve Swallow, himself an ECM veteran. This intimate but warm trio date consists of tunes exclusively by Swallow, comfortable classics that these three friends play with mature ease.

For Scofield fans, this date ought to be more than his ECM debut and more than another bit of guitar classicism for “jazz” fans. The guitarist’s legions of jam fans—earned from his recordings with Medeski Martin & Wood and his loose identification as a hip taste to acquired by open-minded Phish fanatics—ought to get on board as well. Yes, these nine performances use conventional swing rhythms throughout and never move into “jam”, with Scofield and Swallow improvising over chord changes. The tunes are not Tin Pan Alley oldies but refreshing compositions from one of the great pens of the last 40 years. The simmering energy of this band, the way the group finds deep places for soulful conversation, is what has kept audiences of all kinds returning to Scofield for decades.

The best example may well be on the recording’s first and longest track, “She Was Young”. On the one hand, it is a classic Swallow standard, a jazz waltz that proceeds in what sounds like a standard form. A couple of odd-numbered bar counts interrupt the obvious, sure, but Scofield plays lyrical lines that flow across the structure with astonishing conversational freedom, certain harmonic changes flashing with joy on each pass. But after the theme is restated, the band locks into a two-bar out-chorus that simply opens up into a daring jam. Not a funk jam exactly, nope, but maybe something better and more thrilling: a harmonically vague playspace in which Scofield indulges his distorted tone in the funky manipulation of little phrases and blues moves while Stewart breaks up the beat into dialogue and Swallow follows and then dares the guitar to go further out. The moment, which starts as a little tag, becomes a free collective improvisation spun off from the tag into open joy.

That is jamming, boys and girls.

The other relatively long track here is “Awful Coffee”, a mid-tempo swinging lope on a fairly abstract theme. The band adds a long tag here as well, to equally fun effect. The feeling that the band is perfectly tight and perfectly loose at the same time is unmistakable as they loop and swirl. In these moments, it may be most obvious that decades of playing jazz hasn’t pushed these players to lean on cliches or muscle memory.

The fun is wonderful on other, less jammy tunes as well. The simple “In F” gives Scofield and Swallow some simple hits to punch around the drums before the improvisations kick in over swing time. The clotted distortion of Scofield’s guitar is used particularly well here. On that Mulligan-Baker recording from 1975, the guitarist still sounded cleanly bell-toned, but here he plays with just as much fluid phrasing while also dirtying it up with small, distorted chords and brilliantly placed bent-note cries.

The band cooks on several tunes, showing affection for uptempo swing. “Radio” carries plenty of momentum, but the winner here is “Eiderdown”, which starts with Swallow playing a stop-time pattern beneath Stewart’s swing, before locking in and playing four-on-the-floor. You get the sense that a third-grader reading the phone book would sound swinging if he did it on top of this rhythm track, with Stewart popping snare accents in conversation with Swallow’s subtle variations during the Sco solo. He is inspired to all kinds of jungle-gym phrases as a result, looping his guitar, turning it back, phrasing like a jester. Stewart’s short drum solo is vintage.

There had better be a pretty ballad on a collection of Swallow tunes, and so “Away” whispers with casual grace. On the statement of the theme, Scofield and Swallow each play single-note lines in a two-part counterpoint that makes plain the elegance of the tune’s bones. When Scofield starts playing diads or lightly strummed chords, it feels lush in the subtlest possible way. Swallow’s solo is his most compelling of the set, giving way to a more exuberant ending by the guitarist. “Hullo Bolinas” is also charmingly pretty, a mid-tempo waltz in a major key that starts like a show tune and then develops a blues heart as Scofield’s solo turns and twists through a range of hip chords.

For so many of us, though, the highlight of Swallow Tales has to be the version of “Falling Grace”, the Swallow tune that is most beloved of all. Brilliant duet versions by pianist Bill Evans and bassist Eddie Gomez, by Chick Corea and Gary Burton, or by guitarists, Pat Metheny and Jim Hall, highlight the way that this composition’s tumbling set of chords sound both novel and inevitable. The trio version here is a refreshing update. So many of the classic versions have sounded like chamber jazz. The tune has been sung with lyrics as a ballad, and it has been given a delicate reading more often than not. The composer, Stewart, and Scofield make a different choice here, swinging the tune like mad—even starting with eight bars of drums out front, followed by some ferocious swing.

The lovely harmonies are all there, of course, but the interplay here is as much rhythmic as it is harmonic. It is the track on which the versatility of this trio is most apparent: Scofield and Swallow are both lyrical guitarists who play with a truly “grace”-ful fluidity here, flowing around each like water. But Stewart makes it that much better by daring them to interact with his accents and complements, his dialogue or response and slight provocation. Yes, “Falling Grace” is that lush and compelling theme you remember, but now is an edge too. Magnificent.

The jazz guitar trio is a classic format, and John Scofield, Steve Swallow, and Bill Stewart are as well-equipped as many musicians could be to venerate it and renew it a bit. That is the accomplishment of Swallow Tales.

RATING 7 / 10