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Since 1997’s A Go Go, which featured the backing of Medeski, Martin & Wood, John Scofield has been increasingly pigeonholed as a sage of the burgeoning "jam band" movement. But the guitarist has been blending post-bop and a more rock/funk-oriented style even since his earliest recordings, and he’s always had the uncanny ability to sound like himself no matter what kind of music he’s playing. "It’s because I only have a few licks," Scofield once modestly quipped to this writer.
Works For Me is his first "straight-ahead" record in a while. It couldn’t be more of a departure from last year’s Bump, which featured members of Soul Coughing, Sex Mob, and Deep Banana Blackout and marked Scofield’s first use of samplers and other electronic instruments. Now the pendulum swings back to jazz, as Scofield enlists Kenny Garrett on alto, Brad Mehldau on piano, Christian McBride on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums.
Sco’s nasal, slightly overdriven sound and behind-the-beat phrasing are of course ever-present. Mehldau gives the new batch of originals a harmonically advanced dimension, recalling the late 70s partnerships Scofield cultivated with pianists Richard Beirach and Hal Galper. (This, by the way, is Mehldau’s second sideman appearance with Higgins, following Charles Lloyd’s The Water Is Wide. ) Scofield’s guitar and Garrett’s alto blend very effectively on the heads, particularly toward the end of "Big J," when the two take a melodic fragment up an octave, shouting it over a soulful vamp. Their interplay is also fun on "Heel to Toe," during which they trade eight- and then four-bar statements in a spirited joust.
The "groove" and "jazz" elements of Scofield’s music come together most effortlessly on "Loose Canon." McBride begins the piece with a three-bar bass riff that becomes the basis for the A sections. The B section breaks into a swing feel, setting in motion the album’s most inspired melodic and harmonic passage. Scofield and Garrett solo over an extended A, Mehldau an extended B. (The rotation is guitar, piano, alto.) Here, as well as on the leadoff track, "I’ll Catch You," we have the best of both worlds: a groove tune without the repetitiveness of much of the stuff on Bump, but also a jazz tune that is not at all staid or predictable.
Personnel: John Scofield: guitar; Kenny Garrett: alto sax; Brad Mehldau: piano; Christian McBride: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.