|JAZZ REVIEW; Scofield Stays Out in Front With His Trio
By BEN RATLIFF
Published: September 24, 2004, Friday
For 25 years the guitarist John Scofield has cooked enough comfortable permutations of jazz-funk, jazz-rock and the long, spacious grooves of jam-band music to reheat for the rest of his career. So his decision to scale back to a working trio with the bassist Steve Swallow and the drummer Bill Stewart seemed honest and challenging as well as a return to some older ground. (He made several trio albums with Mr. Swallow in the early 1980's.)
But it also offers a better chance to see what Mr. Scofield has now, as a soloist and a composer. Though his trio is a busy group, Mr. Scofield stays right out front all the time; the burden is on him to remain a compelling improviser.
This week the band is playing at the Blue Note, where it recorded a live album only 10 months ago, the just-released ''En Route'' (Verve). And Tuesday's early set sounded better than the album, with more of everything, bite and speed and delicacy. It was an incredibly resourceful display of devices and strategies.
Mr. Scofield used many of his electric guitar's possibilities, playing with different kinds of language and feel. For soloing with a New Orleans funk beat, he produced sound with his fretting hand more than his picking hand; he mashed the strings, making notes smear and wobble, giving you the feeling of sinking slightly in the ground as you try to walk. For jazz ballads (as in his version of ''Alfie''), he plays lightly with a muted tone. For his own harder-edged songs (''Hammock Soliloquy'' or ''Over Big Top''), he got a bright, slashing sound and adopted Thelonious Monk's sticky-fingered, mock-stiff rhythmic feeling, backing the melody with awkward lower harmonies; he organized melodic lines into upside-down-sounding chords.
In fast tunes he just burned, playing as fast as he could while still retaining a bit of taste. And when that became too dull, he played tension-and-release, unsentimentally cropping notes before they became ripe, then settling into others at length a few bars later, warming them up. Steering the band this much, he becomes a shrewd and slightly hyperactive mannerist. He exaggerates notes and phrases, making them excessively comic, ugly, beautiful, rocking or refined.
Mr. Swallow, on electric bass, is a driving player too; his guitar-like solos in rippling bebop rhythm could become too much in this context. (This really is a band for people who love the guitar.) Mr. Stewart was more reasonable, locking into the various kinds of grooves as they were needed and trying not to add more than strictly necessary. But the focus of the evening was on the long guitar solos, and Mr. Scofield controlled them tightly. He was too impatient to let them flag.
Published: 09 - 24 - 2004 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 25