John Scofield & Joe Lovano Quartet in Albany, NY
January 30, 2011
Catching the John Scofield & Joe Lovano Quartet wasn't just a case of experiencing two remarkable improvisers exercising their art, though there was that. With the incessant, fabulous rhythms of drummer Bill Stewart, and the rock-solid bottom supplied by bassist Matt Penman, there was great group synergy. Even though Scofield is one of the finer jazz guitarists and Lovano is a saxophonist with few peers, they both want it that way.
The group was excellent, hot as ever on a frigid winter night at The Egg in Albany, upstate New York.
It's about the music, not the individual. But within that music, Lovano's strong, driving tenor sax is sheer joy. Great tone and strength and constant invention. He's always pushing for something, and always expressing himself. Telling great stories with flurries of notes, all over the horn. You can hear the history of the sax, but it's distilled into Lovano himself and it's one of the best sax sounds out there. And one of the most influential among jazz musicians.
"Most saxophones are out of Coltrane," said Scofield a few months back. "Joe knows Coltrane too, but his roots are older than that. He can swing. He can play ballads. He can burn. I love Joe's playing."
Days prior to the show, Lovano described his relationship with Scofield as "Really beautiful. John and I have such a reputation together. We have a lot of repertoire and a way of playing that's really special. We have a ball together. We've known each other since the early '70s. Through the years of watching each other and hearing each other in all these different settings... all in a real creative way. It's fun when we come together. All of a sudden, it's new music."
And it was new. On the spot. Scofield, with his angular attack on the guitar, played phrases that had an edge and said something that normally wouldn't be expected within a chord sequence or a modulation. He played with the thickness of his own notes, screeching some, yelping some others; bending some, and running fast jazz licks.
Stewart was everywhere on his kit. Scofield, who plays regularly with the drummercheck out the superb This Meets That (EmMarcy 2007)has said there isn't anyone playing better jazz drums. Multiple rhythms roared from the trap set, necessary when players of Lovano's and Scofield's ilk are creating. He gave them all kinds of kicks and explosions to use for their own inventions. Some of it was subtlenot just all bombast. Terrific, stirring. And Penman's strong sound and supple hands ripped through the music as a vital compliment to Stewart and the band as a whole.
The band played mostly Lovano and Scofield originals. Lovano's numbers rummaging through the heart of jazz but pushing past bop, with Coltrane among other influencesperhaps even some Dewey Redman flair. Scofield's pen often brought in more from the funk and groove world, where he is well at home. It got spacey, too; the guitarist having painted with a broad musical brush his whole career.
The first set included Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack," where both Scofield and Lovano took out their bebop chops and tossed them around in classic form. When these guys really dug into the tunessometimes playing in unisonit didn't seem like they were running down the chord changes as much as they were chasing them out of the egg-shaped venue. In a good way. Lovano's "Fort Worth" was powerful, his tenor going everywhere, domineering. Muscle flexing. The guitarist's "Let the Cat Out" got bluesy, a place where Scofield has a particular fondness. He delivered bent-note grooves, splattered with jazz runs, while the way Lovano got a sound as fat as most cooks on The Food Network fit right in.
"Cymbalism," from Lovano's pen, featured his new G mezzo soprano sax he had built in Copenhagen. "It's beautiful," he said a couple weeks ago. "It took a year to make it. It's beautiful. It's between a soprano and an alto in a certain way. The bottom register of the horn is like the top of an alto and the bottom of the soprano. It has its own space."
Indeed it was. The soprano can sound grating and harsh, even in the hands of good players. The mezzo had a softer quality and its expression was more tranquil. Some of that, no doubt, due to Lovano himself, but the instrument didn't fight with the player. No harshness. It will be nice to hear more of that from Lovano, and he plays it some on his new, top-notch recording Birdsongs (Blue Note, 2011), with his terrific Us Five group.
The second set was highlighted by "Twang," a funky, bluesy, Scofield number that found the guitarist pulling out all kinds of quirky and hot phrases. Lovano got down and dirty, in some sections the closest to the bar-walking thing as he probably gets; other times, just burning. "Theme for Ernie," a Coltrane chestnut from his early Prestige days, was the only ballad, and Lovano was the champion there with a lush tone that comes from back before Trane, to the beginning with Hawk, and Ben and later Ammons. Luscious.
Lovano will tour much of the year with Us Five, and Scofield always has stuff going on, including a trio tour. But this is a group that plays jazz the way it's intendedalive and in-the-moment.