June 21, 2024

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CD review: John Scofield – Uncle John’s Band – 2023: Video, CD cover

John Scofield has been showcasing his uncanny melodic gift and dynamic sense of pulse on major labels for more than 30 years. In a direct reflection of the versatile playing and range of material comprising John Scofield’s third album for ECM Records, its title carries multiple meanings. The very phrase “Uncle John’s Band” stipulates the guitarist and composer was in charge of the sessions in August 2022, but he (again) proves himself both gracious and generous during his interactions with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart. 

Immersed in the language of modern jazz, the American guitarist’s first teenage inspirations were blues and rock, and his playing retains a gritty yet sophisticated raw edge. Long recognised as a stylist, his standing as an instrumentalist is marked by equal-status collaborations with the likes of saxophonist Joe Lovano and fellow guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. In 2020, Scofield signed to ECM and followed up a detailed exploration of compositions by bassist Steve Swallow with an introverted solo album recorded during lockdown.

Uncle John’s Band, his third ECM release, is a welcome return to the flowing modernism and rocky bite that made him a go-to player for the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock earlier in his career. The guitar-trio double album presents seven well-worked originals alongside standards from rock, jazz and the American songbook. Vicente Archer on double bass and Bill Stewart on drums provide inspiration and support, and the guitarist’s commanding form makes each bend, whine and gentle strum count. Scofield’s originals use familiar grooves and melodies to showcase the trio’s empathy and fire.

The sparse motif in “How Deep” sits on a bed of sprightly walking-bass swing and “Back in Time”, conjuring images of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” delivers subtle moods shaded with menace. In the album’s second half, “Mo Green” builds a short sequence into a fiery edifice of etched lines, and the lightly strummed “Mask” gathers strength over a New Orleans pulse. Elsewhere, “Budo” and “Ray’s Idea”, recorded by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, respectively, in the late 1940s, develop angular lines while Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” is a beautiful ballad.

There’s also a lovely reading of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man” and a winsome cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”. The set ends with the title track, a Grateful Dead song which Scofield plays regularly with the band’s bass guitarist Phil Lesh, and is relaxed and superbly controlled.

In addition, the placement of the Grateful Dead song as the last of these fourteen tracks, as well as the name of the record itself, might suggest this is a covers album. But this isn’t merely an LP consisting solely of outside songs: seven of Scofield’s originals are intermixed with the aforementioned Garcia/Hunter composition as well as numbers written by the disparate likes of Miles Davis and Bob Dylan, among others.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that performances of selections written by others generally represent the longest on the album. Take the opener, for instance, the Nobel Laureate from Minnesota’s “Mr. Tambourine Man:” in keeping with the mid-Sixties era in which the Byrds had a massive hit with the song, Indian inflections in a sampled loop come and go over the course of nine minutes and five seconds, during which time John indirectly elucidates the melody before taking off for uncharted realms with Archer and Stewart.

Both of the latter play with as light a touch as the other and, in turn, Scofield himself. That shared intuition is indicative of how often they’ve played together in the past–see 2018’s Combo 66 to name just one outing–and that rare trait is also readily apparent in “How Deep,” through which the trio swings with great dignity but no little funk.

Much like “Ray’s Idea,” which appears towards the end of this roughly ninety-minute, this cut posits the notion originals function as segues between the likes of Neil Young’s “Old Man” and the Bud Powell co-authorship with ‘The Man With The Horn,’ “Budo.” The simplicity of structure on Scofield’s self-penned numbers allows for ample free-form playing, while precise outlining of the melodic and rhythmic themes takes precedence on the familiar tunes such as that of the aforementioned iconic band with whose bassist Phil Lesh, Scofield has so often collaborated in the past.

Not that the takes composed by the man whose name adorns this package (along with some cryptic images) are constricted by any means. “TV Band,” for instance, has an outline altogether like a pop tune with the verse-chorus-verse progression. But in alternately elaborating upon and dispensing with its inherent formality, this trio stretches the song as well as themselves. The same dynamic is in play on “Mo Green,” where the shared empathy in their interplay is so delightful, that the seven-plus minutes fly by.

Such is invariably the experience no matter the track length here and no more so than on “The Girlfriend Chord.” The threesome doesn’t overplay any more than Scofield overwrites in his commentary on each track in the liner notes of the enclosed six-page booklet; angular guitar runs echo in the double bass lines and decisive but understated drumming.

Add to the element of quiet surprise–what was that tease?– most all this three-way action, like the unfolding of “Back In Time,” takes place at a fairly leisurely pace. Recording at Clubhouse Studio, engineer Tyler McDiarmid captured all the nuances of space as well as sound, leaving it to executive producer Manfred Eicher to expertly mix and sequence. As a result, Uncle John’s Band is one of the most balanced efforts of John Scofield’s career in terms of meshing instrumental technique and technical skill.

On top of that, the music itself radiates a markedly more playful air than the solemn likes of its two predecessors, 2020’s Swallow Tales and the eponymous solo effort of two years later. The very open-ended attitude at the heart of this project, in terms of both musicianship and range of material, reaffirms how John Scofield continues to refine the basic precepts of modern jazz.

CD 1

1 Mr. Tambourine Man (Bob Dylan) 9:05
2 How Deep (John Scofield) 5:39
3 TV Band (John Scofield) 7:22
4 Back In Time (John Scofield) 6:49
5 Budo (Bud Powell, Miles Davis) 4:12
6 Nothing Is Forever (John Scofield) 6:40
7 Old Man (Neil Young) 7:02

CD 2

1 The Girlfriend Cord (John Scofield) 5:22
2 Stairway To The Stars (Mitchell Parish, Frank Signorelli, Matt Malneck) 6:42
3 Mo Green (John Scofield) 7:19
4 Mask (John Scofield) 6:34
5 Somewhere (Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein) 6:32
6 Ray’s Idea (Gil Fuller, Raymond Brown) 3:56
7 Uncle John’s Band (Robert Hunter, Jerome Garcia) 6:27

John Scofield guitar
Vicente Archer bass
Bill Stewart drums

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