Since the news came out that Gov't Mule was finally releasing Sco-Mule
, a collaboration with broad-minded jazz guitarist John Scofield
, there's been plenty of speculation and anticipation. The power trio began as a part-time side project for then-Allman Brothers Band guitarist/singer Warren Haynes and bassist Allen Woody but, along with drummer Matt Abts, was so well-received that the southern-roots jam band ultimately took on an unexpected life of its own. Now that this live recording with Scofield is finally here as part of Mule's ambitious release and gig schedule to celebrate two decades togetheran album first held up and then shelved after the harrowing tragedy of Woody's still-unexplained death six months after the group's third studio album, Life Before Insanity
, was released in February 2000there are only two words that can apply:
There are so many surprises on this two-disc (three if you're one of the people who pre-ordered the release directly from the group), two and a half-hour all-instrumental extravaganza that it's hard to know where to begin.
First, the more-or-less easy part: Scofield had, by this time, already begun building a new fan base in the jam band community with A Go Go
(Verve, 1998), the first of what has since become a number of ongoing collaborations with germinal jazz jam band Medeski Martin & Wood
. Pairing with Mule was a perfect fit; Scofield's blues and soul-drenched version of jazz guitar had separated him from the pack almost from the beginning of his career, when he released the still seminal Live
(Enja, 1977), an incendiary date with pianist Richie Beirach
, bassist George Mraz
and drummer Joe La Barbera
Still, who knew that the guitarist who has, in the ensuing years with his Überjam Band and others, expanded his purview even further, could rock out as he does here...and use his ever-increasing array of stomp pedals to such great effectin particular on this album's scorching title track? Scofield scratches out a solo that's as close to a turntablist as any guitarist has ever come, while adding unearthly electronic swoops and swirls (with Abts matching him fiery note for fiery note), before digging in even further for an incendiary climax.
Who knew that Abts (who, taken collectively with his Mule buddies, looks more biker than musician, with shoulder-length hair and more tats per square inch than author Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man
) could swing his ass off as he does on two 18-minute versions of "Kind of Bird" that begin in unexpectedly free territorythe song originally written by Haynes with Allman Brothers co-founder Dickey Betts for that group's Shades of Two Worlds
(Epic, 1991)before settling into a positively nuclear rock groove that, driven equally hard by Woody's relentlessly driving eighth-note lines, bolsters yet another stratospheric Scofield solo?
Who knew that Aquarium Rescue Unit keyboardist Dr. Dan Matrazzo had the chops to cut a Latinesque soul-jazz reading of Wayne Shorter
's "Tom Thumb"first heard by Scofield as a bonus track to the guitarist's 1996 Blue Note-era compilation The Best of John Scofield
navigating its more complex chordal constructs with ease during his electric piano solo, or waxing Jan Hammer
-like with searing synth work on both versions of A Go Go
's "Hottentot" that are included on Sco-Mule
Who knew that Woody was not just a great electric bassistthe heart and pulse of early Mulebut a kick-ass acoustic one as well, driving the two versions of "Hottentot" with visceral grooves and an upright tone for which plenty of long-term jazzers would give a body part?
And who knew that Hayneswho has already proven himself a guitarist of depth and breadth that goes beyond his rock roots, both in Mule and with the Allman Brothers Band (especially the final incarnation that, teamed with another forward-thinking guitarist, Derek Trucks
, just wrapped up its 45th and, sadly, final year by going out on the highest of possible highs)was so capable of extending beyond the language of rock to bring in even more sophistication than usual...while still knowing how to build epic long-form solos of blues-filled, pyrotechnic proportions? Sco-Mule
isn't a jazz album by any standard definition; it rocks way too hard for that. Still, with Scofield's intuitive way of taking the music ever so slightly out, only to bring it back in again with the kind of effortless aplomb he's developed in a career now entering its fifth decade as the guitarist moves into his mid-sixties, Sco-Mule
ain't your typical jam band album either. Instead, it sits somewhere in-between, with everyone forgetting about artificial delineation. Sco-Mule
is, quite simply, great songs played by a terrific group that may have been performing live for the first time, but was already imbued with a profound connection that went deeper and broader than any one genre.
Its shortest tune (the nine-minute title track) is the only one that approaches but doesn't comfortably crack the ten-minute mark, with two versions of "Kjnd of Bird" approaching twenty minutes and a bonus version of Mongo Santamaria
's often-covered "Afro Blue" approaching a quarter-hourclosing Sco-Mule
with an epic jam that demonstrates just how deep (and, no doubt, unexpected) the chemistry between Scofield and Gov't Mule was from the very beginning. Still, there's absolutely no meaningless meandering here, with Haynes, Scofield and Matrazzo constructing long-form solos with such compositional expertise that it's all the more surprising they came out of thin air.
Everyone plays with a sense of purpose and ongoing sound of the unexpected that surely made this as surprising and magical an event for the group as it was thrilling to its audience.
As Gov't Mule hits the road with Scofield for 19 dates, from Seattle to New York and from Columbus to Nashville, it looks like 21st century fans will get the chance to relive what was originally intended to be nothing more than a one-off event with two Georgia shows in the fall of 1999. Allen Woody may no longer be with us, but with this tourand, in particular, the exhilarating Sco-Mule
his spirit lives on, and other than coming with the warning for even the most intrepid fans of both Gov't Mule and Scofield to enter this 150-minute extravaganza at their own risk, the only other thing that can be said (again) is:
But, then again: maybe we should have.