The radical reading of standards, musical theater staples and pop songs is a jazz rite of passage. But does pop culture still produce a vibrant supply of subjects for jazz transformation? Brad Mehldau would say yes.
The great and epochal jazz guitarist John Scofield really began to express his abiding interest in non-jazz covers on 2005’s That’s What I Say, a tribute to the music of Ray Charles on which Scofield, in the manner of Wes Montgomery in the ‘60s, temporarily suspends the cerebral difficulty of modern jazz, invoking his instantly recognizable voice as a player to “state” Charles’ memorable songs and to comment on them within strict and reverent limits. I think it might have scored a Grammy – maybe his first.
The trend continues on Sco’s exceptionally fine 2007 record This Meets That (really, one of his best), in which he offers up a brilliantly lyrical rendition of the country standard “Behind Closed Doors,” a swinging and eccentric duet with Bill Frisell on the theme of “House of the Rising Sun” and a propulsive Ray Charles-inspired take on “Satisfaction” amidst a set of Scofield originals, alternating between his Minimalist groove mode and his extravagant gift for heartbreaking, cheese-free ballads.
When Scofield got back together with his once-a-decade studio bandmates Medeski, Martin and Wood for the 2014 effort Juice, their third, the spirit of classic covers was still very much in the air, and the rules, as one would, expect, were considerably looser. “Light My Fire,” “Sunshine of Your Love” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” get fully Martinized, at times unrecognizably.
So that is your background for understanding the group behind the album Hudson. This is indisputably a supergroup. It finds Scofield reuniting with the Jazz Rushmore drummer and Woodstock icon Jack DeJohnette, who drummed on Scofield’s 1990 record Time on My Hands, which was arguably the pivot point in Scofield’s career, from “just another” late-era fusion guitarist and Miles alum/disciple to one of the most distinctive and vital voices that the instrument and the genre have known.
On keys, we find none other than the aforementioned John Medeski, whose primacy in the reclamation and reinvention of fusion simply cannot be overstated. Before MM&W, fusion was dead. It was TV themes, blue blazers and bad alto. It was, in short, G. MM&W and the other New York City scenesters of the time (from which milieu Scofield would recruit his Über Jam band) reconnected to the Minimalist, skronky, spontaneous and “sound art” element of Miles’ first forays into fusion. They did it with such verve, topicality and irresistible groove that they almost singlehandedly rekindled the interest of rock fans in jazz precepts. From there, it is only 13 complex steps to understanding how Scofield ended up in Phil Lesh’s band.
On bass is Larry Grenadier. If you haven’t heard of him, rest assured that every big name in jazz has. They keep his cell number in their breast pockets. An extraordinarily fluid and sympathetic player, who, like all the great bassists, operates as a free agent at the intersection of harmony and groove, Grenadier is probably best-known for playing the Scott LaFaro role in Brad Mehldau’s empathic piano trios, but the list of people with whom Grenadier has collaborated begins and ends with “everyone.”
Whether the quartet is led by DeJohnette, I am not sure; but his name comes first because he is Jack freaking DeJohnette, and jazz is an art of tradition and deference as much as of innovation and ego. Well, actually, now that I look at it, the masthead is alphabetical: D, G, M and S. So, apologies to the collective and to Jack in particular for implying that he would demand or even recognize such obeisance. Personally and professionally, I have no problem with Jack coming first.
Hudson is not a pure covers record. It begins with what is, honestly, a somewhat meandering and long funk jam (the title track) in the tradition of Miles’ polarizing ’72 record On the Corner (on which You-Know-Who drummed). But this is, despite its rock ruses, a jazz record, and in jazz the hand that has writ moves on, without apology. I cannot even count the number of great jazz records that begin forbiddingly, with a red herring of a free-jazz exploration, before getting on with the real content at hand. It’s an anti-commercial strategy if ever there were one, but it has been a very long time since jazz was commercial music.
“Hudson” is followed by “El Swing,” a delightful straight-up modern jazz/swing number penned by Scofield. Then the cultural horseplay begins with a take on “Lay Lady Lay,” a gorgeous and fairly staid reading of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” some more Dylan, some more group originals and finally, a thematic linchpin: Medeski, on piano, driving a deliriously off-kilter ragtime reading of “Up on Cripple Creek.” See, the album is called Hudson: the Band, Woodstock, Dylan. It’s a thematic thing. To hear DeJohnette paying such profound and genuine homage to the deep pocket of his neighbor Levon Helm brought the buds of genuine tears to my eyes, but I’ve got work to finish here.
DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski and Scofield perform at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on Wednesday, October 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $49, $59 and $79. Purchase tickets in person at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072. For more information, visit www.bardavon.org.