John Scofield: Music of Ray Charles - Gatineau, Canada 10/15/05


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John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles
Theatre, Casino du Lac Leamy
Gatineau, Quebec
October 15, 2005

With the passing of singer Ray Charles last year, it's no surprise that a proliferation of tribute albums have been coming out of the woodwork. In the jazz world, it's safe to say that there's no guitarist of significance better-suited for adapting the soulfulness and groove of Charles' music to a looser improvisational context than John Scofield. Still, while That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles was good enough, it also suffered, in places, from excessive over-production. With horn sections and a host of high profile guests including Mavis Staples, Dr. John, John Mayer and Warren Haynes, it was a record that garnered a lot of attention; still, the tracks that worked best, the ones that captured Charles' spirit and translated it into a more playful exploratory approach, were those featuring the core quartet of keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Willie Weeks and drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan.

Scofield's playing throughout the album was as strong as one would expect. He possesses a rich and varied jazz vernacular, but he's also got the grease and grit to tackle Charles' more straightforward material, applying that language to create more unpredictable solos that rest perfectly between the "in" and the "out." Still, despite the high level of musicianship, even the quartet tracks felt, at times, too considered.

Not so his touring band for the album, consisting of organist Gary Versace, bassist John Benitez, drummer Steve Hass and singer/trombonist Meyer Statham. Their October 15, 2005 performance at Gatineau's Casino du Lac Leamy, just across the river from Ottawa, Canada, opened the material up in ways that make it almost disappointing that Scofield didn't take a similar approach for the studio recording. This group may not have the star power of those participating on the recording, but they gave the material more life, more energy. And Scofield took considerably more risks with the material, taking it to places that better combined his more recent interest in sound manipulation with his unequivocal and distinctively personal jazz language.

And while it's true that nobody in the band has the cachet of Staples, Mayer or Dr. John, they're not exactly unknown in music circles. Benitez has been associated primarily with Afro Cuban and Latin jazz in New York since emerging in the mid-1990s, playing mainly acoustic bass with artists including Eddie Palmieri, David Sanchez and Conrad Herwig. But the truth is that he's no stranger to more funk-based groove music, and last night proved himself to be an equally accomplished electric bassist—at times working house-like rhythms with Hass, elsewhere chest-deep in Marcus Miller territory with dynamic string slapping and popping.

Hass' résumé is more inherently diverse. From swing with Frank Vignola to folk with Meg Flather and contemporary post bop with Ravi Coltrane and George Colligan, Hass' breadth of exposure makes him the perfect player for Scofield's group. Swapping snares between tunes to get just the right tone and snap, Hass was as at home playing a solid backbeat as he was more elastic time.

Statham—who, in addition to vocal duties, played a little trombone to add a brass texture to some of the tunes—is, if not the least-proven, certainly the least-known. With a smoother tenor than Charles, he may not have seemed the appropriate choice for a tribute band. But, truth be told, this group is all about placing a personal spin on familiar music, and Statham's relaxed phrasing, peppered with the occasional growl, brought new things to the Charles repertoire, and at the end of the day, that's what this should be all about.

But amongst a group of outstanding musicians it's Versace who is clearly the one to watch. A versatile player who's as comfortable on accordion and piano as he is organ, he's a star on the ascension, someone who is quickly gaining ground and exposure. Since basing himself in New York in 2002, he's become an increasingly in-demand player, one who can navigate the metric complexities of Rez Abbasi's Indo-Pakistani fusion as easily as the more abstract leanings of John Abercrombie and the through-composed work of John Hollenbeck.

It's the collective experience of the band that makes it the perfect complement for Scofield. Opening the show with a medley of "Talkin' 'Bout You" and "I Got a Woman," the group quickly established the modus operandi for the evening. This was music for the head, the heart and the soul—a kind of intelligent party music that didn't sacrifice substance for sheer physicality. Taking Scofield's compact arrangements on the record as a starting point, the group stretched things out considerably—and not just in terms of lengthy solos, although there was ample opportunity to stretch. The funky groove of "Talkin' 'Bout You" shifted into swing for Versace's solo, which managed to mirror Scofield's own ability to take things out just enough to create tension, but not so far as to lose the pure and simple essence at the song's core.

On "Sticks and Stones" Hass combined a loose swing feel with a house-like snare beat, locking in tightly with Benitez to give the tune a more contemporary groove. While the band was raw and gritty, they also respected Charles' soulful dignity. Even when Scofield soloed over a long vamp, the interaction of the band, and the imaginative underpinning of Versace's comping gave him the opportunity to evolve in ways that he never could with his Ãœberjam band.

Scofield has cited Wes Montgomery as a primary source, with his solo on "Hit the Road Jack"—liberally peppered with octave runs throughout—playing to that influence but with his own signature edge. When Scofield first emerged in the mid-1970s, he was a more linear player, but over the years has developed a detailed harmonic concept that includes curious chord voicings and broad intervallic leaps. Although the album take of "Hit the Road Jack" featured a horn section, this pared down touring ensemble managed to hit all the right spots, implying the same sense of full harmony. Abruptly shifting the tune into a fiery swing for Versace's abstract solo, Scofield built the intensity during his own solo so powerfully that, when the group shifted on a dime back to the song's original groove, you could palpably feel the crowd relax again.

The down and dirty funk of "I Don't Need No Doctor" was another strong feature for Statham, and it was clear that Benitez was having a great time as well. But, again, what caused the song to transcend the album version was the interplay going on within the group, highlighted by an exciting trade-off between Scofield and Versace near its conclusion.

"You Don't Know Me" took the temperature down—but only marginally. This may have been a ballad, but it was as evocative as the rest of the set, with Scofield starting alone and demonstrating just how strong his ability is to take a simple melody and harmonize around it with ever-shifting chordal support. While most guitarists of his generation have, at one time or another, recorded a purely solo project, it's one area that Scofield has yet to explore, and his intro to "You Don't Know Me" suggests that a solo record would be a real treat. When the band entered it demonstrated, once again, their ability to blow the lid off the intrinsic self-containment of the album's more rigid arrangements. Versace took his most tender solo of the evening—short and to the point, but delicate and almost painfully poignant—while Hass created a larger percussion sound with his ride cymbal and bass drum combining with hand-hit drums to create a conga-like effect.

In a complete departure from the album, Scofield pared things down to a trio with Benitez and Hass for "Just You, Just Me," a song that Charles originally sang with Betty Carter. The only Charles tune of the night not found on Scofield's album, this was also the most mainstream. While it's possible that including this version of "Just You, Just Me" would have altered the focus of the album, it would have also demonstrated just how malleable Scofield sees Charles' material as being. His solo was a vivid lesson in the dynamics possible through the sheer physicality of playing an instrument—rather than electronic manipulation—with some phrases almost drifting by, others more sharp punctuation marks. Benitez's fine solo had its own lesson—that a melody, properly constructed, can imply changes that aren't being explicitly played.

Back to a quintet for "I've Got a Woman," the band didn't stay with the song for long before segueing into "Hottentot," from Scofield's album A Go Go—the only non-Charles tune of the set. Still, the augmented ninth intro created the perfect linkage between the tunes, and got some enthusiastic applause from fans familiar with the 1997 collaboration with Medeski, Martin and Wood. Building a powerful chordal solo, it was Versace's ear for the perfect accompaniment—complementing while, at the same time, pushing—that helped drive Scofield's solo to its inevitable peak. Breaking down into a percussion solo, Scofield began layering loops as the group re-entered. Sometimes the loops worked, other times they felt a little disjointed, but that's the beauty of live performance—and another differentiator between this group's interpretation of the Charles material and those found on the album. As well-performed as the material on the album was, risk was at a minimum, whereas this group was right out there, taking chances and seeing where they would and could go with them.

One of the highlights of the album was the brief 90-second "Cryin' Time," a duet between Scofield and Goldings. Live, Versace was equally compelling, as it became an even more heartfelt duet, leading into a powerful rendition of "I Can't Stop Loving You" before finishing the set with the party-rousing title track from the album. Again, his ability to take the simplest blues change and expand it with more colourful harmonies demonstrates why he's one of the greatest guitarists of the past 30 years.

The audience's standing ovation seemed, at first, to be ignored by the house as the lights came up. But persistence paid off, the lights dimmed, and Scofield returned for a version of the bluesy "Night Time is the Right Time"—surprisingly playing a mean slide guitar. The album track featured Warren Haynes on slide, and Scofield expressed his admiration for Haynes, telling the audience that he'd picked up Haynes' instructional video and had been working on it for a couple of months. Scofield has a ways to go to reach the level of guitarists like Haynes on slide, but he managed to pull it off credibly. Still, while this might ultimately become another weapon in his arsenal, he's better off sticking with and continuing to evolve his own distinctive approach, as the physical restrictions of playing slide seemed to detract from his own personality.

That aside, the show was an outstanding success. The 1,100-seat casino theatre was nearly full, good news for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, who sponsored the show as part of its Fall/Winter Concert series that will see saxophonist Toby Delius at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage on October 20 and Wynton Marsalis in a return engagement at the NAC's Southam Hall on October 23.

But of the six shows in the series, Scofield's will very likely go down as the best of the bunch. Proving that a studio recording is often just a set-up for greater exploration in a live context, in this case it may well be a truth that Scofield's touring tribute to Ray Charles is the band—and the approach—that he should have used in the first place.

Visit John Scofield on the web.

Photo Credit
Mike Bouchard, courtesy of www.jambands.ca.

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