Click here to [close]

Friday, October 27, 2023

John Scofield - Uncle John's Band (ECM, 2023)

I've been savoring every crisp note from guitarist John Scofield's Uncle John's Band for a bit now. The trio format, I believe, is Scofield's calling - he has crafted a distinct approach to his guitar playing that works best with skeletal, but solid, accompaniment, like on his ECM debut Swallow Tales (ECM, 2020) and years prior on Enroute (Verve, 2004), both with drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Steve Swallow. Last year, Scofield released the solo album, John Scofield (ECM, 2022), and while it was an enjoyable release with some stand-out tunes, the recording also highlighted the lack of accompaniment and interaction as Scofield's solo work, in general, relies on the looping pedal rather than self-standing intricate chord-melody arrangements. On his new double CD release, however, the setting is just right: Scofield's sharp, sometimes snarky lines and gripping tonal clusters are given a sometimes subtle, and sometimes brawny, lift from this new-ish trio.

Actually, the guitarist's pairing with ECM is a somewhat unusual one. While on the one hand, he is in the lineage of his peers on the label, like Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, and Bill Frisell, he doesn't necessarily have an as easily adapted "ECM sound." There was one recording, the excellent Quiet (Verve, 1996), that suggested that a less edgier sound for the guitarist was quite feasible, but certainly not signature. So, whereas the label often brings a certain shape to the sound of its releases, Scofield is brings his thing to Uncle John's Band, and the results are fantastic. 
There are a couple of pop/rock gems that he has arranged, which are once both nostalgic and given a new lease on life. For example, the title track, an evergreen Grateful Dead gem is a simple, catchy earworm, and in this arrangement, its charm is enhanced. The light, harmonious melody is encapsulated in choice chord voicings and a syncopated delivery. The track also gains gravitas and momentum through Vicente Archer's bass lines and Bill Stewart's drumming.
After the warm welcome of the opening track, 'Mr. Tamborine Man,' we are dropped deep into Scofield's comfort zone. 'How Deep,' you ask? Well, yes, it is. Sparky, melodic lines ping pong off of his bandmates' insistent, driving pulse. Stewart, a Scofield veteran, knows exactly where the accents should go and newcomer Archer has no problem filling in the rest on upright bass. The two give the guitarist plenty of support to stretch out with an acerbic solo, pushing and pulling the tension with an instinctive feel. The follow up, 'TV Band,' finds the guitarist delving into the groove that he has explored with his works like Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995) and his various forays with Medeski, Martin and Wood (i.e.: A Go Go, Verve, 1998). After a strummed chord figure, Stewart and Archer kick in with a simple rhythmic line that opens into a head-bopping tune. The first disc wraps up with Neil Young's 'Old Man,' delivered with a questioning introduction and leading to folk-rock accented arrangement with some well placed outside-the-lines note choices.

So, yes, no, not free jazz. This digression is something that I already once tried to excuse myself for back in 2020 when I reviewed Swallow Tales, however, I find listening to Uncle John's Band a truly guilt-less pleasure, I mean, I just like the buzzing intro to 'Mr. Tamborine Man,' which pays equal attention to the special sauce that the Byrds added in their hit version and to Dylan's own way of taking liberties with the well-worn song, while adding some excellent soloing and recasting the 58 year old war horse in a loving, new way. The word "loving" could be used to describe the overall effort - Uncle John's Band captures Scofield in the best light possible - the exacting sonic atmosphere of ECM, the looser approach of Scofield, and songs of which he truly has deep appreciation