Here is a story about jazz, rock and jazz/rock. It’s all conjecture and fantasy, but I suspect that there is some truth in it. The occasion of this story is Juice, the outstanding new once-a-decade recorded collaboration between the tireless and brilliant guitarist John Scofield and the tireless, brilliant avant-groove trio Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Something important happened to my favorite guitarist ever (and one of my favorite songwriters) John Scofield around 1988. After his three-year stint with Miles Davis early in the decade, Sco churned out what might be described as some notable late-era fusion records, the most highly regarded of which include Blue Matter (1986) and Loud Jazz (1987). These records sound like what we sound like when we sound like fusion (with apologies to Raymond Carver). It was the fusion born of a generation of Miles alumni in the early ’70s (McLaughlin, Zawinul, Hancock, Corea), caressed to a smooth purr by various 335-slinging Californians and blue-blazer-wearing alto players later in the decade, finally immortalized and euthanized in the TV theme songs of the late ’70s and early ’80s: the fusion of slappy basses, snappy too-tight grooves and chimey keyboards, including the dreaded DX7 piano that always alerts you when there is cocaine around (for what else could make anyone think that was a musically desirable sound?).
Sco’s sidemen on these dates are the usual A-list suspects of the genre, brilliant players all: George Duke, Dennis Chambers, Don Alias and the rest of the cats helping him along with his funk-leaning take on the fusion thing. The guitar-playing is intricate and soulful poetry – he simply can’t help that – and they are really good records, but clearly end-of-empire in a way: the fatigued decadence of late Rome. The fusion thing – an uncomfortable-if-not-doomed alliance of prettified jazz harmony, sanitized funk rhythm and unconvincing “rock attitude, man” – was kinda cooked by that time, required to wait out a few (dozen) culture cycles for its opportunities at rebirth and repurposing, which are still slow in the coming, so deep are the scars.
Apparently, it took Sco about five minutes to wake up, rediscover himself and develop a genuine generational voice as a guitarist, writer and ensemble leader that, 25 years later, has lost none of its fertility and relevance. He is in some ways the Neil Young of the jazz guitar: a deeply expressive, sonically audacious player who is instantly recognizable, both by his default rockish tone (and its toilet-flush stereo chorus variant) and by the long-throw melodicism of his improvisation and the deep physicality of his phrasing.
Something important happened to Sco around ’88. I don’t know what it was, but I do know that the change is foreshadowed, if not formally announced, on his spare and groovy trio-and-quartet album Flat Out, which begins with a telling cover of the Meters’ classic riff tune “Sissy Strut”: Sco dropping fusion’s stiff chops-funk for the loose, spacious and bodacious swagger of the New Orleans Royal Family, and finding that it suited his voice exceptionally well. The next two tracks are some quietly radicalized jazz standards, then onto Scofield’s unfailingly pretty, hip and witty originals (I am telling you that this man sits at the same songwriting table as McCartney, in my book). The record doesn’t know exactly what it is, but it is a genuinely exciting confusion of new directions, and it sure grabbed my 1988 ears in a way that they didn’t expect to grabbed by “that fusion guitarist” John Scofield.
And then it’s on. Long story short, the next year Sco abandoned the fusion thing altogether and re-presented himself to the serious jazz world, releasing the exquisite DeJohnette/Haden/Lovano quartet record Time on My Hands: the first of what would become a 20+-year-and-counting run of inspired and timeless jazz sessions. My favorites, for your approval: 1992’s What We Do, a song-oriented record on which our hero meets his soulmate in the outrageously groovy and gifted figure of drummer Bill Stewart; next, the dazzling quintet record with the beat jazz legend Eddie Harris, Hand Jive (1993); most recently, with his on-again, off-again jazz trio of Stewart and the ageless bassist/composer Steve Swallow, 2007’s brilliant folk/jazz masterpiece This Meets That. Everything else is good too. Truly can’t go wrong with this guy.
Meanwhile…in the early ’90s, while Scofield was building a jazz oeuvre of historical significance, headlining a guitar renaissance along with pals like Metheny and Frisell, a certain, New York City-focused segment of the jam and jazz scene was quietly rescuing and rehabbing that original impetus of jazz/rock fusion, clearing out its treacle, slickness and ego problems, rediscovering the Afro in it and reconnecting with the Minimalist avant spirit of Miles Davis’ first forays into rock and funk groove, like On the Corner. Leading this charge, of course, was the vibrant, organ-fried Medeski, Martin and Wood: the instrumental trio that yoked simply badass groove to a skronky, downtown avant-garde Minimalism and – maybe to the surprise of some, maybe to their own surprise – scored big-time on the jam scene.
Scofield must have been moved. Still in the middle of his legendary run of jazz albums, he did not tarry. He rejoined the energized new-fusion party, hooking up with MMW for 1998’s collection of Scofield originals, À Go Go – a landmark in the genre – and in the following years recruiting his own band of young studs from the New York jam scene for the highly influential Über Jam. Since then, Sco’s fusion/Minimalist funk releases roughly alternate with his jazz sessions. Like MMW, he has been embraced and steadily employed by the jam scene, a deal sealed by Scofield’s frequent sit-ins with Phil Lesh & Friends.
Juice sounds like old friends getting after it again, but there is a fresh wind here as well. Past efforts deemphasize tune-writing, Scofield willingly sublimating his extravagant gift for melody-writing in favor of hip, very simple lines and rhythmic hooks around which the jam stories are spun. But Juice has some simply lovely songs on it, including writing contributions from all four players.
“North London” hearkens back to À Go Go’s “Green Tea” and to some of Sco’s melancholic, simple tunes from This Meets That. “I Know You” – one of several tracks on which Medeski (uncharacteristically) plays acoustic piano – is a stunning, purring groove-ballad. Other tracks go reggae, go Latin and go the staple New Orleans grooves that have sustained all these careers. This breathy, warm and spacious record includes a handful of radical covers, including a garagey take on “Light My Fire,” a mysteriously transformed, barely recognizable “Sunshine of Your Love” and a stunning, gospelized ballad reading of “The Times They Are a-Changing.” For all his post-Bop agitations and deep-groove funk and soul, the sad and stately melody is always the way that Sco has approached the process of ripping my heart out.
Radio Woodstock presents the Woodstock Jazz Festival featuring John Scofield, John Medeski, Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, Ben Perowsky, Chris Speed & others, Saturday, October 4, 7:30, $25-$75, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; https://radiowoodstock.com.