John Scofield: Grown-up Jazz Guitar

Listening to John Scofield’s 1998 collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood, A Go Go (Verve), you might suspect that the veteran electric guitarist was putting a midlife crisis on record. Here was a guy who with saxophonist Joe Lovano had made some of the most well-regarded chamber jazz albums of the early 90′s, grooving away with those eternal collegiate jammers and, admittedly, sounding rather good doing it.

Mr. Scofield ‘s latest, Bump , just out on Verve, is a continuation of this middle-age guitarists-just-want-to-have-fun mode (the title alone says that) and a reminder that A Go Go wasn’t the aberration it might have seemed. From his first dance with fame as a sideman with Miles Davis in the trumpeter’s pop-star 80′s, Mr. Scofield has had his own distinctive sound palette, mixing a bebopper’s immaculate single-note lines with the strummed chords, fuzzy tonalities and bent notes of R&B, funk and rock, of, in a word, the blues.

Ever since Jimi Hendrix flamed out in 1970, the fusion of rock guitar’s head-banging ecstasies and jazz guitar’s often dweeby virtuosity has floated out of reach like the holy grail. Avant-jazzers like James (Blood) Ulmer and avant-rockers like Vernon Reid have taken honest grabs at it. But Mr. Scofield could never quite pass for Jimi’s love child, no matter how artfully he incorporated the folk blues. Even his “dirty” playing was clean, in that unmistakably measured “jazzy” way. (That’s what you get for going to the Berklee School of Music instead of staying in the garage.) Still, Mr. Scofield’s typically loping, amiable guitar lines packed plenty of pleasure on their own terms. If he’s never been as inventively “out” as Bill Frisell (with whom he joined forces on a nice 1992 Blue Note album, Grace Under Pressure ), he is, to my way of thinking, anyway, a lot more of a satisfying listen than Pat Metheny whose periodic descents into preciousness have no counterpart in the ample Scofield discography. (All right, maybe at moments on their 1993 joint effort, I Can See Your House From Here . Clearly it’s not easy for a guitarists to make it in a horn man’s world.)

That Mr. Scofield could put his hard-won jazz chops and reputation, and on A Go Go become the fourth member of MMW&S, is fairly remarkable. I think I’ve sufficiently worked through my own bop issues to appreciate that album for the salubrious slap in the face it is. Mr. Scofield banishes the memory of dexterous Wes Montgomery licks, not to mention an entire European tradition of music going someplace harmonically, to jam with the lads, his surprisingly tough guitar a fine counterpoint to Mr. Medeski’s abstracted organ.

On the new album, Bump , the guitarist does that thing that jazz musicians like to do. He makes things complicated, staying true to the circular logic of the groove, but in a very elaborate fashion. Gone is the gloriously retro, low-rent sound of A Go Go , replaced by a three-dimensional soundscape of shifting textures, timbres and electronic sounds that go beep in the night. This is the handiwork of his au courant jam dream team-a rhythm section drawn variously from an obscure New England jam band Deep Banana Blackout and from the Downtown po-mo jazzers, the Sex Mob, with the addition of salsa percussionist Johnny Almendre and keyboard sampler Mark De Gli Antoni.

The Scofield originals that comprise Bump offer up their share of pleasures-on “Kelpers,” the keyboardist synthesizing what sounds like Benny Hill’s organ; on “Groan Man,” the guitarists’ funk licks suddenly giving way to a pretty, popish melody that reminds me of the bridge to Nena’s “99 Luftballons” (unless that’s the ecstasy talking). In general, though, I can’t help but wish there were more Hendrix, less Bitches Brew -vintage electronic Miles. Miles’ trademarked evil-cool was a crucial element in his make-believe sonic world. Smiling Sco too often sounds like he’s flirting with kitsch. Of course, if I were raving at a club instead of sitting alone in my room with my disc player, I’m sure it would all sound good.