Over the course of his four-decade career, guitarist John Scofield has maintained a successful dual career that alternates purer jazz with projects that skirt its edges and are aimed at a larger demographic. Not that there's anything wrong with that. His That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays The Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005) garnered critical and popular acclaim, keeping him on the road for the better part of a year, including a stellar performance in Gatineau, Quebec, near Ottawa, Canada, in October, 2005. After the exciting and stylistically assimilative This Meets That (EmArcy, 2007), Scofield turns to the blues/gospel-inflected Piety Street, a diversion for him, that's absolutely credibleand, in many ways, inevitable.
-style octave work.
Scofield's blues roots have never sounded this good. With the rock-solid support of bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Ricky Fataar, the album grooves with a comfortable, in-the-pocket vibe ranging from the buoyant "That's Enough," with Jon Cleary's wonderfully supportive piano work, to the ambling groove of the substantially rearranged "Motherless Child," one of vocalist John Boutte's best performances. The up-tempo "It's a Big Army" evokes images of deep south churches, with an entire congregation taken up by the sheer joy of the music, while the funky "His Eye is on the Sparrow" is driven by Fataar's visceral, behind-the-beat pulse. "Ship of Zion" is a slow, simmering blues that features a lengthy opening solo from Scofield filled with nuanced bends and gritty, Wes Montgomery
Scofield's playing may be, by necessity, more on the inside here, though he does take a few opportunities to create the kind of inside/outside tension-and-release that only he can, with his bop-inflected solo on "Motherless Child" a definitive performance that proves it's possible to cross-pollinate without losing the essence of the music. Jazz is a stylistic melting pot that, at it's best, dissolves borders and makes it possible to apply more sophisticated harmonies to even the simplest of changes. It's what makes Scofield's playing on Piety Street so captivating. He clearly knows the roots of the music and respects it; but equally he stretches it ever so slightly, so that he never loses sight of his own distinctive personality. This may be a blues/gospel album, but it's played by a group capable of more adventurous music, and there's little doubt that this music will open up even further in performance, just as Scofield's Ray Charles tribute did.
A cross-over album, to be sure, but Piety Street fits comfortably into Scofield's broad and growing discography. For a guitarist who has meshed with the jamband scene, Norwegian Nu Jazz and R&B while remaining committed to more exploratory music, Piety Street is a logical and inevitable project. Sco's roots are as much in blues and funk as they are in jazz, and here he's delivered music as fun as it is substantial. Piety Street will appeal to the jazz contingent as much as it does those for whom it is their first encounter with this remarkable guitarist.
Personnel: John Scofield: guitar; Jon Cleary: piano, keyboard, vocals; George Porter Jr.: bass; Ricky Fataar: drums; John Boutte: vocals; Shannon Powell: percussion.