Like many of his fellow alumni of the University of Miles Davis, guitarist John Scofield, class of ’82 to ’86, likes to place himself in multiple contexts, placing his sui generis sound — it fuses strains drawn from Charlie Christian, B. B. King, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Hall into a singular argot — within diverse environments that other tonal personalities might find too disjunctive to navigate. No tourist in any of the regions he calls home, Scofield has displayed his fluency in the various dialects of American music on an across-the-map series of recordings over the past decade. His journey has encompassed harmonically complex postbop (En Route and Works For Me); impressionistic ballads (Quiet and This Means That); open-ended, blues-drenched jam-banding (A Go Go and Out Louder with Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as Bump and Up All Night); an orchestral concerto (Scorched); an organ trio (Saudades with Larry Goldings and Jack deJohnette); and a New Orleans–flavored homage to soul master Ray Charles (That’s What I Say with such guests as Dr. John, Aaron Neville, and Mavis Staples). The latter date, from 2005, foreshadows Scofield’s latest offering, Piety Street, recorded last year in the Crescent City. Propelled by George Porter Jr., who plays bass with the Meters, pianist-vocalist Jon Cleary and drummer Ricky Fataar from Bonnie Raitt’s group, and Louisiana roots vocalist John Boutté, he addresses a baker’s dozen gospel songs from the canon. The repertoire — highlights include a soulful, slow-burn “Walk with Me,” a rocking, reharmonized “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a Mardi Gras Indian meets Bourbon Street take on “It’s a Big Army,” a groove-centric “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and a pair of reconfigured gems by Thomas A. Dorsey — offers Scofield enough harmonic movement to extract him from his comfort zone and also allows him to tell his stories with fewer notes than he might normally play. Scofield’s perspective may be secular, but he conveys the spirit-raising essence of the genre, swinging hard and conveying, as befits a true Milesian, a mind-set of creativity and freedom within the groove.
About the Author
Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz for various publications, including DownBeat and Jazziz, as well as the website www.jazz.com. He's presented it on WKCR-FM in New York City since 1985. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article "Smalls Universe," published by DownBeat.