It has been said time and time again that jazz should be rooted in the blues, have the feeling of swing and the element of improvisation. If that is the case, then the Joe Lovano & John Scofield Quartet should be the textbook version of what jazz is.
For their concert last Sunday evening, The Egg’s Swyer Theatre was filled with an enthusiastic, appreciative crowd that was touched by the music of this wonderful group. It is this connection with the audience that separates this group from many of even the best known of players. In today’s jazz world, many musicians have leaned toward the growing trend of intellectualism over emotion or storytelling. But these musicians showed how the soul could be exposed even through intellectual music.
Both guitarist John Scofield and saxophonist Joe Lovano have a long history of playing together in one another’s groups. And, as it is every time they share the stage, it’s a family reunion. Their camaraderie and friendship fill the stage, while others might fill it with ego.
During the course of their two sets, the quartet played an hour and 45minutes of mostly original music by Lovano and Scofield. Throughout the concert, the musicians – bassist Matt Penman and drummer Bill Stewart, in addition to Lovano and Scofield – took the listeners on a journey on every selection.
The night started with “Fort Worth,” an up-tempo blues-based composition by Lovano that would make the late great John Coltrane smile. It was full of energy and color. Scofield showed his mastery of the blues and swing without sounding dated. Both Lovano and Scofield have a deep understanding of the jazz tradition, yet have their own unique approach that sets them apart from everyone else. Penman wasted no time in rolling up his sleeves and digging in to pour a foundation for the soloists to float on top of. Stewart seemed to take more of a background role on the tune at first, as if to assess the situation to find his role in the group. By mid-tune, however, he clearly had found that role and brought the energy level up another couple of notches. The history between Lovano and Scofield could be heard through their musical dialogue. They each listened and responded to one another as if simply having a conversation between two friends.
The second song, “Since You Asked” (written by Scofield), began with a solo guitar introduction steeped in the sound that has made the guitarist instantly identifiable. Both lyrical and jagged, Scofield gives the listener intensity – not with volume, but through the notes he chooses and the placement of those notes. He makes the listener wait for the expected and then gives them more by finding notes other than just the norm. After the intro, the band rolled in, and Lovano joined Scofield on the melody in a very organic and free way, playing together but not necessarily in “perfect time.” Each soloist embraced the feeling of the blues with out actually playing familiar blues licks and in their own creative and sometimes complex fashion reached the audience.
The Thelonious Monk classic “Hackensack” followed next, and there are no other musicians I can think of who would do a better job finding the essence of Monk without sounding contrived or academic. Lovano played the Saxello (made famous by Roland Kirk), and both he and Scofield purposely fell through the cracks, finding unexpected ways to make musical sense out of Monk’s music. Lnown for his unorthodox sound, Scofield mixed it up with some traditional bop ideas, while Lovano gave more of an impressionist take on bop, utilizing its phrasing but avoiding any clichés and inserting more space than the typical bebop solo. Stewart laid out a rhythmic pad for the soloists to improvise on top of through his percolating rhythms, making the tune swing ever harder as the tune wore on.
Scofield’s “Let the Cat Out” reminded me of a ’60s detective show theme song, and both Lovano and Scofield took it home, showing how strongly the blues had influenced them in their early development. Lovano brought out the gutbucket tenor playing of the ’50s R&B tenor masters, and Scofield the finger-picking of the blues guitar greats. Neither however stopped there. Both allowed their early blues roots to evolve before our eyes (and ears), morphing into longer phrases with more notes and more complexity, but always keeping the feeling of the blues. Penman followed up with a nice contrasting solo, and Stewart played a well-crafted solo on top of a bass ostinato, layering rhythms that had a strong melodic quality to them.
The second set began with Scofield playing through a loop pedal and using those loops to create textures to improvise on. Through his timing, he created almost two different musical personalities – one delicate and one more anguished. These two musical personalities seem to be picked up by the other performers, and as the musicians joined in on Scofield’s “Pedals Out,” each used that as the basis for their approach to the song as well. After the melody, Lovano and Stewart explored a new tempo, playing free-form as a duet. When Penman entered, he transformed the tune again with a new tempo and direction for Lovano to improvise over. With the bass, drum and sax trio I was immediately reminded of the classic Ornette Coleman trio, and the tune traveled through several more tempo changes before returning to the melody. Though a fan of free jazz, I was at this point worried that we may have left the feeling of blues and groove at the curb, but fortunately, I was wrong.
Lovano’s “Cymbalism” was up next, and although there is much room for freedom, rhythmic accents permeated the form of the song and helped ground it back to something the listener can directly relate to. These rhythms also added a different form of intensity, keeping me hooked as to what might happen next. The soloists explored but still brought it back to the blues. The ballad “Theme for Ernie” followed with an admitted nod to the John Coltrane version from the album “Soultrane.” At the start, their version adhered closely to the original, but by the end had transformed into something completely their own.
The second set ended with Scofield’s “Twang,” fueled by a funky, New Orleans-ish groove in 6. Scofield started us off back at the delta and took us on a journey of the world he has traveled. Lovano entered for his solo, letting out Lenny Pickett-inspired high notes that immediately came back to the world of Joe Lovano exploring the possibilities of his horn and the music, including an Eddie Harris quote (“Listen Here”). Throughout the tune, the musicians were able to challenge themselves and the listeners intellectually while still touching their souls. Stewart even cracked a smile during his drum solo, as he pushed himself to the brink of almost losing the beat. Not surprisingly, the tune ended with a standing ovation, and an uptempo bop encore followed, Miles Davis’ “Budo,” which led to another standing ovation.
The one thing that struck me repeatedly throughout the evening, was the lack of ego on stage. Each band member is a leader in his own right, and yet no one ever stepped into that role. It was more like old friends getting together and allowing us to be a part of their conversation. Having met both Lovano and Scofield on several occasions throughout the years, I have found them to be just as ego-less and warm-hearted offstage as they were at this concert. Both thanked the audience throughout the evening for “making us feel good” and showed us how jazz is still alive and well.
Throughout the night, the musicians always remained themselves. Sonny Rollins often says that people may like him one night but not the next because they expect to hear the same thing and don’t get it. These musicians are cast from the same mold and to that I say thank you Joe, John, Matt and Bill. Thanks for the honesty, integrity and a great night of inspired music.
J Hunter’s review at AlbanyJazz.com
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Rudy Lu’s photographs at AlbanyJazz.com
Excerpt from David Singer’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Lovano is a physical player who likes to keep the energy high. For every solo he reaches that peak moment so the audience, and his band, knows exactly where they are in his progression. Scofield is less obvious, far more the thinking man, moving through idea after idea for almost every phrase; rarely does he carry a theme through to its end, nor does he create that peak moment we are so used to hearing from rock guitarists.”
THE JOE LOVANO-JOHN SCOFIELD QUARTET SET LIST
Since You Asked
Let the Cat Out
Theme For Ernie