Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Guitar maestro John Scofield wraps up a two-day stand at the Jazz Kitchen

John Scofield displaying his old-maestro focus
More than once during his first set Tuesday night at the Jazz Kitchen, John Scofield took to the mike to express his affection for Indianapolis and the club hosting his two-day visit.

It sounded genuine, and in response it's obvious that local jazz fans should be grateful for his fondness for playing here. He commands top dollar at the door, and it's unusual for the club to book non-fusion musicians for more than one night.

Not surprising: Scofield's stature has been lofty for many years. Richard Cook and Brian Morton, the brilliant co-authors of "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD," summed it up in their fifth-edition introduction (2001) to their survey of Scofield recordings, saying the Dayton-born musician is "seen by many as the quintessential, most widely read and flexible contemporary jazz guitarist."

"Most widely read" in this context alludes to Scofield's broad sensitivity to the subdivisions of jazz in his era. He draws upon genre tributaries  naturally and submits those influences to both a compositional gift and a tone unique enough to have brought from British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage a symphonic tribute, "Scorched," for jazz trio and orchestra.

That work emerged from Scofield's golden decade, the 1990s, when his recorded output alone covered a wide field, from bitty funk convulsions with Medeski, Martin and Wood to intriguing ballads and up-tempo originals exploring new post-bop terrain. The set I heard Tuesday featured distant allusions to that range, with some refinement of his sound indicating an autumnal mellowing (he's 66) that should not be taken to mean he's run out of things to say.

He seemed inspired by his current band, which is anchored by drummer Bill Stewart, a colleague for a couple of decades. The "Combo 66" ensemble is filled out by Vicente Archer, bass, and Gerald Clayton, piano and organ. It's difficult to slice and dice the interaction of the four, which was indivisible Tuesday night. There were moments, like the tight rapport between guitar and organ on "Can't Dance," that called attention to dialogue. On the whole, however, even in a borrowed ballad like Shania Twain's "You're Still the One," the focus on the bandleader never reduced the work of the  three sidemen to merely competent support.

This quality owes much to Scofield's conciseness, his avoidance of prolixity. That never crowds out his colleagues. In that respect, he stands in contrast to his near-contemporary, Pat Metheny — also widely admired and deft at bridging genres. To stretch the point a bit, where Metheny is Walt Whitman, Scofield is Emily Dickinson. Scofield can gesture toward the former poet's breadth, but his tendency is to make cogent points without putting himself on display at length.

For that reason, I like the more abstract side of Scofield's artistry, which was presented in originals during most of the set. The climax of this aspect was a new piece by Stewart, titled "Band Menu" (unless it's "Banned Menu"), in which a pulse emerges from out-of-tempo episodes. The bedrock is a four-note motif with a pickup that has melodic implications — meat-and-potatoes fare for Scofield.

In an interview, Scofield once said to me before appearing at Indy Jazz Fest that he cultivates a manner at festivals that speaks in a more public voice than his club appearances. It's there that he connects with his funkier side and punches the tone forward a little. This is how Combo 66's first set concluded Tuesday night.

I'm far from snobbish about this side of Scofield. He's a perfect judge of building a set to keep an audience engaged, and this worked marvelously. Moreover, he can dip into his blues-rock chops without indulging in cliches, though I'll admit my ears haven't been saturated with lots of blues-rock playing. But I venture to say that at that end of the spectrum, Scofield can probably give aspiring blues-rock guitarists lots of lessons in non-shredding, purposeful, fresh playing. Doing so Tuesday night, he was expertly supported by the band, with great contributions from Clayton and Stewart.