John Scofield is one of those talented and restless guys. He’s the kind of musician for whom simply playing music is no longer the game, where it’s now about what you can do for music as opposed to what music can do for you. There are reviews and interviews posted on PopMatters of earlier works with the earlier Scofield, so no need to re-hash. Let’s get down to it.
There is a clear progression from Scofield’s previous album Überjam (2002) to Up All Night. This shouldn’t come as any big surprise since this is the second coming together of his current touring band, consisting of rhythm guitarist and sampler Avi Bortnick and drummer Adam Deitch, with the new addition of bassist Andy Hess. Überjam was a ground breaking collection of 11 original works that explored new styles and influences over scintillating grooves. Up All Night is essentially no different, but that’s where the similarities ends. Think of this album as an even further departure away from what its predecessor strived to achieve: a search amongst outside sources to find fresh ideas to pour into existing molds, and where the sampling talent of Avi Bortnick really lets loose.
On the whole, Up All Night is very much touch-and-go on two separate levels: as music and as an album. The success of The John Scofield band relies on the chemistry between the band members to fuse together the three levels of sound: drum and bass, solo guitar, rhythm and sampling. Where it splits, you hear separated linear lines of riffs, bleeps and beats that sound like childish experimentation. More often than not, it is the cohesiveness of the rhythm and bass, providing the foundation for Scofield and Bortnick’s sampling creativity to let loose, that serves as the band-aid. For instance, take the opening track “Philiopiety”. The introduction is a speckling of incongruous electronic blips and Scofield overdoes the guitar samples. It picks up as Craig Handy’s flute experiences the Bortnick treatment, but what ultimately holds the track together is the rhythm and bass section. There are moments where it all comes together, but they are too few and far between.
It goes without saying that to omit the electronics and sampling would take this back to pure jazz and soul. There’s no denying that these guys can already do that — “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” is a superb rendition of the original by the Dramatics and is the only cover on this album — so what you’re looking for in the remaining 10 original tracks is the innovation when everything gels. There are three tracks where this really stands out: “Watch Out for Po-Po”, “Thikhathali”, and “Every Night Is Ladies Night”. All are heavy on the drum and bass as Scofield’s signature guitar solos weave in and out and the samples flesh out the sound.
As an album, the tracks don’t make for easy listening. Others may have less of an issue with this, but there are so many different styles explored that it’s hard to know where to begin taking it all in. In the space of 11 tracks the breadth goes from soul (“Four on the Floor”) to disco (“Freakin’ Disco”) to African drums (“Thikhathali”) to hip-hop (“Creeper”). Some styles are more developed than others; they don’t all work and they don’t always play well with others. For example, “Like the Moon” is a ballad-style track that begins well enough with a light country-style solo guitar melody that becomes two-part when joined by the soft bass accompaniment. The track continues to drift aimlessly, creating an atmospheric feel that is distorted when the music unexpectedly segues into a wash of non-coherent electronic sounds that stops almost as soon as it starts, and then it’s back to the drifting guitar again. Following on the heels of this is “Freakin’ Disco”, an afro-’70s disco groove that, after “Like the Moon”, seems to have come from out of the blue.
This is a hard call to make. The album is worth listening to because the John Scofield Band is really starting to come together, but I can’t help but feel that it lacks an overall sense of direction that makes it feel like it’s still a work-in-progress.