Today’s lesson is you cannot escape your past. Like Jay Gatsby at a Hampton’s society party, John Scofield’s roots in rock and R&B show themselves in his self-proclaimed “straight-ahead record” Works For Me. But this is not all bad news, since most of Mr. Scofield’s audience was bred in the rock vernacular. Besides he is coming back to his listeners after taking a dip into the jam-band phenomena on the 1999 Disc Bump, with its heavy beats and sampling menu and the excellent A Go Go (1997) where he was backed by groove favorites Medeski Martin & Wood. Scofield had found in MM&W the perfect Lucy to his Ricky act, but this disc was probably a one shot deal, as the trio have been starring in their own dramas of late.
This disc harkens back to two outings and several tours he did with Joe Lovano ten years ago. The Blue Note records Time On My Hands and Meant To Be pushed the guitarist out of the shadow of Miles Davis (his former employer) and into the role of mediator between the acoustic and the electric sides of jazz. His self-titles “Loud Jazz” gave way to a quiet assertiveness. Since then, he has fluctuated between soul-jazz and a Downtown sound. He signed with Verve and went on to make an acoustic guitar album, and the funky music described above.
Works For Me, while trying with all it’s might to be straight jazz, has rock and R&B at it’s core. Just as you wouldn’t ask Thelonious Monk to cover The Beatles or Sonny Sharrock to play Segovia, would you force Scofield to reject his fat rock roots. He employs other sons of rock, Kenny Garrett and Christian McBride. Garrett the former Miles Davis saxophonist from Miles’ Amandla days is comfortable in both the acoustic and electric worlds. His Coltrane tribute Pursuance featured Pat Metheny and spoke Trane’s lingo to the sons of the sons of the sixties. Bassist McBride who, although is a neoclassic jazz star, confesses his love for all things Earth, Wind, & Fire. The odd men out are the introspective pianist Brad Mehldau and former Ornette Coleman drummer (circa. 1958) Billy Higgins. Mehldau plays behind the beat on most solos, clinging to his acoustic sound, as one would tote a security blanket. The musically introverted pianist seems more comfortable with the likes of Mark Turner, Lee Konitz, and Charles Lloyd.
But tension in jazz makes for great art, and while Mehldau plays anchor and perhaps reference point for a more traditional jazz listener, Scofield practices his boisterous jazz. Take “Big J” with all it’s references to soul-jazz as Sco’s guitar mimics organ sounds. Then they run down the blues on “Heel To Toe” and with Higgins stoking the groove it’s back to grit-and gravy. They tackle a waltz dedicated to Scofield’s wife, and, like the “Six To Eight” a vehicle for Mehldau, Scofield’s extroverted sound breaks through. But, hey if you want a Jim Hall sound, go buy a Jim Hall record.