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berjam by John Scofield

Guitarist John Scofield is one of the few musicians whose sound has remained distinctive even as he’s moved forward and grown. Over the decades, he’s honed a style that doesn’t quite eschew melody but that doesn’t exactly embrace it either. He’s interested in jazz and rock, sound and noise, and he squeezes a lot of each out of his axe with results that are always at least interesting, and sometimes mesmerizing.

His latest disc, überjam (Verve Records 3145893562), falls into that latter category. It’s a giant leap forward from 1997’s noodley A Go Go, cut with jam-meisters Medeski Martin & Wood; überjam better succeeds in melding catchy tunes, psychedelic grooves and free association to which Sco’s talents are especially suited.

Joining the guitarist on this outing are the members of his working band: rhythm guitarist Avi Bortnick, bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Adam Deitch, recently of the Average White Band. The Israel-born Bortnick also creates samples which add so many great textures and sonicscapes to the 11 tracks. This core group entered New York City’s famed Avatar Studio after a 40-city tour during which many of the tunes developed out of jams the quartet unpacked along the way.

John Medeski also appears on the disc, playing characteristically gritty, often unsettling keyboards; sax and flute lines are provided by Karl Denson, a Grey Boy Allstar alum who has gone to do great things on his own, as anyone who has caught him at one of several Mangy Moose gigs could attest.Scofield, 50, grew up with the movement to fuse jazz and rock’s many forms. Fusion has had its share of failures and setbacks, but Scofield and some of his colleagues (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles Davis) have achieved the most viable results and been most successful in making real progress. Überjam currently stands at the pinnacle.

The secret seems to be to not force the disparate forms together, but to allow things to develop naturally. The opening track, "Acidhead," does so, with a deep but simple groove blossoming out of an Indian-sounding, pseudo-raga introduction (Bortnick’s handiwork). The group plays at an easy but energized lope, a tapestry full of patterns of rhythm, samples and effects, with Sco’s guitar holding it together, though sometimes just barely. Then Medeski changes the mood dramatically with a solo on a vintage piece of electronics called the Mellotron, and, oddly enough, the picture comes into focus like a Magic Eye image: Yes, there’s melody and structure and groove at work, but it’s also all free and loose and anything-goes, as the little snippets of happy pop near the end confirms.

"Ideofunk" moves at the same mellow-yellow pace as "Acidhead." The theme is simple, but that allows Scofield, Medeski and Denson (on flute) to dig deep as they explore. Drummer Deitch works especially hard, inventing music here and throughout the disc that goes far and beyond playing rhythm. On "Jungle Fiction," for example, he sets a blistering pace and lays down a densely layered barrage over which the lead players skip lightly. Sco reminds of Pat Metheny here, with a fuzzy, jubilant, soaring feel. He falls out of this breezy mode and into a solo that is more like a broken mirror or a dream shared by Medeski and Bortnick with the "fast-forward" button stuck, then slips effortlessly back into the pop-rock theme.

Not every track works so well. "I Brake For Monster Booty" and "Animal Farm" bring to mind King Crimson, but King Crimson lite, lacking the weight and depth of the previous tracks. But most numbers have succeed on one level or another: "Offspring" alternates between a happy-go-lucky theme and loose, free breaks that do indeed sound like a jam session between über-musicians; "Tomorrow Land," by Bortnick, brings to mind the Americana-style work of Scofield colleague Bill Frisell, a long cool drink after the frenetic pace of the preceding numbers that strolls along easily with one little off-trail adventure during the solo.

The rest doesn’t last long as the title track winds up to a techno-dance-club pace that barely lets up throughout its seven minutes. All of the musicians’ work is athletic here. The spirit of Miles is near - in fact, he’s never too far throughout the whole disc - apparent in the energy, the sometimes subtle shifts in the shimmering, multi-layered fabric of the tune, and the sometimes not-so-subtle breaks that allow the players to stop in mid-sentence and go in another direction. The second half of the tune combines "Blue Moon" with a savage bit of ensemble work that sounds like the fall of Western civilization. Works for me.

"Polo Towers" again evokes Miles ghost, sounding like what Tutu might have been if the trumpet player had had more advanced technology. It’s so cool it’s alien, and it knows it. Denson makes good use of his effects-laden saxophone as Sco offers a lesson in supreme control. "Snap, Crackle, Pop" again layers an easy, lyrical lick over a wicked groove, and "Lucky For Her" closes the disc with more deft combining of melodic bits and heavy-duty electronic abstraction.

This union of melodic groove and industrial abstraction is not a match made in heaven, but a match made in the 21st century; it has suffered through a bumpy courtship, but it seems able to survive the long-haul, if everyone remains true to him/herself.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John Scofield
  • CD Title: berjam
  • Genre: Fusion
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Verve
  • Tracks: Acidhead, Ideofunk, Jungle Fiction, I Brake for Monster Booty, Animal Farm, Offspring, Tomorrow Land, überjam, Polo Towers, Snap Crackle Pop, Lucky For Her
  • Musicians: John Scofield (guitar), Avi Bortnick (rhythm guitar, samples), Jesse Murphy (bass), Adam Deitch (drums), with John Medeski (keyboards), Karl Denson (sax and flute)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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