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JAZZ REVIEW

For John Scofield, It's Both Sides Now

June 15, 1998|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

John Scofield's new album, "A Go Go," is a collaboration between the guitarist and popular grunge-jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood. Playing tunes from that album Friday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, Scofield managed to generate the disc's grungy feel even while working with musicians considerably more polished than the decidedly low-tech MM & W.

The program of funk, shuffle beats and blues played right into Scofield's talented hands. Though capable of pretty music and straight-ahead jazz (as a previous acoustic project and his recent appearance on Joe Henderson's "Porgy and Bess" recording attest), the former Miles Davis sideman is most at home when he finds a groove. His best albums, beginning in 1984 with "Electric Outlet," have always been beat-minded.

Keyboardist Larry Goldings, drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Steve Logan worked the "A Go Go" material in cleaner, crisper style than heard from keyboardist John Medeski and crew on the album. Goldings' use of synthesizers to create organ sounds, rather than Hammond B-3, accounted for a good measure of the sonic cleanliness, abetted by Goldings' more jazz-oriented play. The rhythmic crispness came from the ambitious Stewart, a drummer who has recorded with saxophonists Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz, among others, and his tight lock with bassist Logan.

Opening in relaxed fashion with the new album's title tune, Scofield found endless melodic variations on its theme, which he punctuated with sharply plucked accents. The funky march of "Chicken Dog" gave the guitarist plenty of time to peck and scratch between snatches of the song's smooth, catchy chorus. "Boozer" tripped ahead merrily while referencing a number of soul anthems.

No matter how raunchy Scofield's sound, his playing retained cerebral pleasures that sneaked in almost unnoticed. In the midst of a particularly abrasive passage, he would unwind a long circling line impressive in its length and lyrical content. Even the most predictable riffs would be met with offbeat chords and daring intervals mixed with straightforward, funky accents.

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This duality of style is why Scofield can be appreciated by both demanding listeners and the jam-band crowd. He works on a number of musical levels, simple and involved. The rawer the music, as evidenced here by the James Brown-inspired rhythms of "Chunk," the more liable Scofield was to present his intellectual side.

Most intriguing was "Kubrick," which featured Scofield's acoustic guitar meandering pensively around Goldings' electronic effects before sliding into a Caribbean feel. "Deadzy" turned on a difficult, long-reaching guitar line, while Goldings trailed behind like an echo.

But for the most part, this was an evening of backbeat and riff with an occasional tune leaning toward dance music. That Scofield can dress such material with meaningful, musically astute improvisations is a testament to his ability.

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