Scofield Trio Invades SPACE with Ballads, Bebop and Funk
Evanston, Ill., is a rather genteel part of the world, but guitarist John Scofield’s first of two nights on Sept. 26–27 at local venue SPACE was attended by at least one less-than-decorous “Sco” fan. Sitting in the heart of the packed audience, the rabid disciple hollered ecstatically throughout the one-hour-and-45-minute set and became positively orgiastic whenever Steve Swallow took a bass solo. SPACE is an acronym for “Society for the Preservation of Art and Culture in Evanston,” as well it might be. For a college town, it has a shocking paucity of live music venues.
This mid-sized performance space at the back of the classy Union Pizzeria has an innovative booking policy, but two-night stands are a rarity. Guitar geeks, however, turned out in force for Scofield, especially since his trio featured distinguished sidemen Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. Dour and unsmiling, Stewart took care of business, immediately establishing the pocket that powered, among others, tunes from Scofield’s funky Blue Note albums, Hand Jive and Groove Elation.
Swallow counterbalanced a professorial demeanour with spontaneous, witty and ever-relevant bass-guitar playing. Arriving onstage for the early call time of 7:30 p.m., the trio opened with a sequence of Scofield’s signature grooves, including the faithful tune “Green Tea” (from the 1997 A Go Go album with Medeski Martin & Wood) and a newer song titled “Like This But Better.”
Scofield’s chops are paradoxical—he maintains drama and tension with diced, asymmetrical phrasing. His agonized facial expressions mask his highly confident, logical and efficient fretwork. There is immense detail in Scofield’s colorations, dynamics, attack and manipulation of the beat, and although he has it all under control, it never seems facile.
It’s a fascinating brew culled from the emotive cores of soul, rock and country. But there was ostensible jazz, too, represented by an early bop chestnut from Scofield’s one-time boss, Miles Davis. “Miles lives on in the fingers of men today, and some women,” said a half-apologetic Scofield, who quoted Chicago club owner Joe Segal’s mantra, “Bebop is the music of the future.”
Scofield’s parsing of bebop lingo on “Budo” and Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” betrayed his roots in jazz harmony. Still, he has always been as fascinated by textures as notes, capping his solos with a jerky glissando, or short phrases that were choked, flanged or chicken-scratched.
Beyond Scofield’s postmodern bop themes were his ballads, perhaps most surprising, given its mainstream pedigree, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” during which Scofield thumb-strummed the harmony during an inventive Swallow solo. Preceding that was Carla Bley’s reflective “Lawns,” which Scofield dedicated, somewhat patronizingly, to “Evanstown.”
Given the constant ego massage from the aforementioned audience member, Scofield requested refinements from the soundman, such as more drums in the monitor. “I want things—special things—not sure what they are,” Scofield joked in mock diva-mode before cueing the hip, halting backbeats of “Twang.” Stewart gave out just enough in the way of snare shuffles, skitters and clacks to keep the groove teetering on the brink, while Swallow anchored a consistent vamp.
Toward the end of the set was a more open-ended piece, with flavors of Indian music (guitar articulating like a sitar with help from boomerang- driven loops), the waltz-time lilt of “Scarborough Fair” and also (one-time Scofield cohort) Eddie Harris’ patent style of top-and-bottom antiphony. Scofield often quotes from other songs and genres in his playing, but these quotes are subtly embedded in the craggy architecture of his lines, rarely gratuitous.
Despite playing solidly for an hour-and-a-half, there was no possibility of avoiding an encore—the vociferous No.1 fan made sure of that.
The band returned with a surprise recitation by Scofield of the lyrics to “Just A Girl I Used To Know” by “Cowboy” Jack Clement, a guitarist associated with Sun Records who discovered Jerry Lee Lewis and produced Elvis and Johnny Cash.
Swallow kicked into sparse, pastoral Charlie Haden-like bass lines, and Scofield finished with a country-jig-of-a-coda.
Another audience member suggested that the happily married Scofield might have time to check in with some girlfriend, since he had a two-night layover. “Not me,” said Sco with a smile. “I like to have my 12-hour sleep and then prepare for the next show.”