Scofield gives new look to jazz

For the past thirty-two years, John Scofield has played jazz, releasing at least one album nearly every year. Over that time, he has experimented with a variety of jazz styles, from the acid-jazz of the early seventies to the funk sound of the Miles Davis Band in the late eighties. In recent years he has collaborated with young up-and-comers such as the improv-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, with whom he recorded two albums, Bump (Verve) and A-Go-Go (Verve).

On Scofield’s latest album, Works For Me (Verve), he has changed direction yet again, this time returning to classic jazz roots. Without a single jazz standard or cover song, this record puts a fresh face on jazz’s traditional sound.

Pianist Brad Mehldau is the least experienced of the group, but is certainly not lacking in accomplishments. A Grammy nominee whose music was featured in the late director Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, he is better know for playing his own compositions and for his Art of Trio (Warner Bros.) recordings. His album Elegiac Cycles (Warner Bros.) was named among Time Magazine’s Top Ten Albums of 1999, to list one among many honors Mehldau has received since he started playing professionally in 1988.

Three excellent jazz musicians flesh out the quintet. Kenny Garrett, another former member of Miles Davis’ band, plays a clear, crisp alto sax. Christian McBride, a prot?g? of Wynton Marsalis, provides more than just a solid groove on upright acoustic bass. Billy Higgins, a veteran player who began his career as a jazz drummer in 1957, completes the lineup.

Together these impresarios present a true ensemble effort. Band members share equal time in the spotlight, never letting the record sound like “John Scofield plus backup band.” Without a dominant player, each musician is given room to prove themselves as masters of their craft.

The songs cover the spectrum, ranging from the soft touch of “Mrs. Scofield’s Waltz to the fast swing of “I’ll Catch You.” Most tracks float along at mid-tempo, letting the band stretch out and give each other room for strings of solos that segue seamlessly together. “Freepie,” the only improvised track, ends the record with trailing sax riffs and arrhythmic drum rolls, letting the listener down easy after well over an hour of Scofield’s perfectly planned compositions.

These compositions never give out the impression that Scofield means to show off. After years of playing, he could easily rest upon the laurels of past successes. Instead, he continues to be a prolific songwriter, with a near constant succession of concert dates around the world. Now, without signs of letting up anytime soon, and without any indication that he is running out of ideas, John Scofield has as promising a future as he has had a past.
Works For Me is in stores Tuesday.

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