Saturday, October 28, 2023

John Scofield – “Uncle John’s Band” (2023)

Seemingly more music is released today than ever before. But precious little of this bounty rates more than a listen or two. Or, much of a mention. This is especially true in today’s seemingly fragmented jazz market. The young lions keep trying to rebrand the music: thus far to little avail. Meanwhile the old cats keep trying to keep up.

That’s why it’s notable when an album like guitarist John Scofield’s Uncle John’s Band comes along. This is a terrific record – and one that rates repeated listens. It’s familiar and exciting, like visiting with an old friend

The 71-year-old Scofield has made scores of interesting and enjoyable records throughout the years. Some, like Grace Under Pressure (1992); Hand Jive and I Can See Your House from Here (both 1994); Groove Elation! (1995), Quiet (1996); and A Go Go (1998) stand out. Most are considered classics.

So many others make for easy favorites, too; namely the Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood disc Out Louder (2007); the Gov’t Mule set Sco-Mule (2015); and the intoxicating brew that is DeJohnette / Grenadier / Medeski / Scofield’s Hudson (2017).

Uncle John’s Band is easily one of John Scofield’s very best discs. Mixing rock covers and jazz standards with Scofield’s clever and ever-incisive originals, this well-programed double-disc set breezes by without ever coasting or missing a beat. It holds one’s attention like too few discs these days do.

Accompanying the guitarist here are bassist Vicente Archer (Robert Glasper, Nicholas Payton, Jeremy Pelt) and long-time aide-de-camp Bill Stewart on drums. (Curiously, the package’s spine and label refer to this as the “John Scofield Trio” while the CD cover credits only the guitarist.) This trio first waxed Scofield’s Combo 66 for Verve in 2018 – an album I missed somehow.

This is the guitarist’s third outing for ECM Records – and the affiliation seems to suit the now elder statesman of the guitar. His earliest gig with the German label goes all the way back to Marc Johnson’s seminal 1986 outing Bass Desires (although Scofield had earlier appeared on a 1982 album by Peter Warren for the ECM-distributed JAPO label). Scofield has since appeared on other ECM albums by Johnson, Jack DeJohnette, Gary Burton and frequent Scofield collaborator Steve Swallow.

Scofield’s recent turn on ECM might recall another guitarist named John from Connecticut and fellow Berklee alum: John Abercrombie (1944-2017) recorded several dozen albums for ECM between 1975 and 2017. Interestingly, Scofield replaced Abercrombie in Billy Cobham’s band in 1975 and the two recorded the non-ECM album Solar together in 1984.

Among Abercrombie’s most memorable ECM discs were those he made with Gateway between 1976 and 1996, a trio featuring bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Like so many guitarists, Scofield shines brightest in a trio format – and this is an especially compelling trio of collaborators. Half of the set’s 14 tracks are Scofield originals. As ever, these are playful yet wistful, funky and folksy, yet welcoming and seemingly familiar. Here, though, Scofield’s signature turns of phrase breathe with an air of reflection, contemplation and, dare I suggest, a joie de vivre. This is a man who loves what he does.

Highlights among the originals include the blueish “Mo Green” (a money pun, perhaps, on The Godfather character), the Sco-meets-Wes groover “Mask,” “How Deep,” and “TV Band” (featuring a puckish quote of The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” – get it?).

The jazz standards are well selected, ranging from the familiar (“Stairway to the Stars” and “Somewhere”) to the too-little known (Miles Davis’ “Budo” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Ray’s Idea” – while Scofield worked with both Davis and Gillespie, they likely never played these particular oldies).

But it may well be the rock covers that stand out most here.

Scofield opens the disc with a superb take on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He covers this one much like a sixties guitarist would, say Gabor Szabo circa 1967-68? (Surprisingly, Szabo never touched this one.) Scofield’s approach here nicely gives the twang of his guitar a sitar-like vibe.

The guitarist also delivers an ironic but surprisingly hip take on Neil Young’s “Old Man” and closes out the set with the inspired choice of the Grateful Dead’s 1970 hit (their first) that gives this album its name. Scofield makes meaty jazz out of this folksy bit of bluegrass, imbuing it with the sort of Americana that fellow guitarist Bill Frisell has long traversed. Scofield owns this one, though.

“Uncle John’s Band,” song and album, would make ideal fodder for a blindfold test. John Scofield is easily identified at every turn here – from his signature songs to the way he simply plays a tune (and it really is playing; there is never a sense of effort or obligation). Uncle John’s Band would even make the ordeal of wearing a blindfold seem joyful. Very highly recommended.

(In another anomaly, the ECM website lists the recording date of Uncle John’s Band as August 2022, while my copy of the disc lists the date as August 2023 – an especially quick turnaround for an October 2023 release.)

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