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John Scofield: Combo 66

Ian Patterson By

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It doesn't seem like thirty one years since this reviewer was first blown away by John Scofield's Blue Matter band in an old, reimagined church in Colchester, England. Three decades and thirty-four more CDs as leader later, Scofield continues to seduce with his virtuosity, his eclecticism and, no matter the setting, that inimitable sound. Combo 66 marks Scofield's sixty-six years, whilst also celebrating a new working group. Sure, Bill Stewart has been collaborating with the multiple Grammy-winning guitarist since the beginning of the 1990s, but pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Vincente Archer are new compadres who bring a subtle freshness to what is essentially a typically straight-ahead Scofield workout. Typical, but engrossing nevertheless.

Scofield has long had the knack of penning handsome, catchy melodies, as the memorable head of "Can't Dance" attests. Mid-tempo, walking bass guides the quartet as Scofield, and Clayton on organ, take turns to stretch out. "Combo Theme" follows a very similar pattern, though at reduced pace, with Clayton switching to piano. Not quite country for old men, Scofield weaves a compelling narrative at this slower tempo with his unique, jazz-blues, country-rock vocabulary. Clayton and Archer respond with bouyant improvisations as Scofield sits out, giving full rein to his rhythm section.

The quartet puts the collective foot to the floor on the post-bop "Icons at the Fair" and the more bluesy "Dang Swing," tunes that recall Scofield's collaboration with McCoy Tyner on the legendary pianist's Guitars (Half Note Records, 2008). Yet Scofield has always been most persuasive when the idiom he pursues is his own, as on the standout track "Willa Jean," a delightfully grooving number punctuated by Clayton's peppy piano solo and Scofield's' more measured response—both tinged with infectious, country-blues roots.

Perhaps a less acknowledged facet of Scofield's artistry is his balladry. He is, after all, a fairly unique purveyor of a romantic folk tune; there's more than hint of Ray Charles' slow-burning, gospel-soul in the understated elegance of "Uncle Southern"—a worthy contender for inclusion on a Scofield Greatest Chill Out Hits compilation. Scofield is on familiar turf with the melodious jazz-funk of "New Waltzo," the opening riff echoing "Chank" from A Go Go (Verve Music Group, 1997); Scofield's solo here is the highlight of a fairly run-of-the-mill workout, with Clayton's riposte on organ, in contrast, ploughing unchallenging terrain.

Brushes, spare bass footfalls and deft piano accompany Scofield on the gorgeous slow number "I'm Sleeping In," which sees the guitarist at his most tender and sensitive. "King of Belgium" rounds the set off with a bit of old-timey swing and tasteful trading between guitar and piano. It could almost have come from Tal Farlow's songbook and serves as a reminder of how deep Scofield's jazz roots run.

Scofield is on fine form here with a strong selection of tunes that, in their stylistic breadth, serve as a great introduction to the iconic guitarist's roots-based language. Scofield, like Bill Frisell, is perhaps more mellow in his sixties, luxuriating in every note, weighing every phrase, but there are still enough sparks here to satisfy his legion of long-term fans.

Track Listing: Can’t Dance; Combo Theme; Icons at the Fair; Willa Jean; Uncle Southern; Dang Swing; New Waltzo; I’m Sleeping In; King of Belgium.

Personnel: John Scofield: guitar; Bill Stewart: drums; Gerald Clayton: piano, organ; Vicente Archer: double bass.

Title: Combo 66 | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Verve Music Group

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