Sunday, 30 March 2008

John Scofield @ The Sage...

I can't remember the last time I saw Scofield play live, but surely that's symptomatic of what makes him so great. An evergreen, he never seems to have a bad night. A Scofield gig 15 years ago would in all probability be similar (but slightly different) to a Scofield gig last week, and the passage of time is pretty much an irrelevance. That said, I especially remember a great show he did in Edinburgh in the early 90s with the quartet featuring Joe Lovano. That show ranked as one of the most burning nights of live jazz in memory, one of those shows where everything just 'clicked'. As memorable in its own way as Peter Brötzmann in full cry, it had the kind of spark and vitality that is truly special. The same can't be said of tonight's more off-the-peg show, but more of that in time.

This concert, part of the same Gateshead International Jazz Festival that presented Alexander von Schlippenbach two nights ago, opened in an interesting way. Broadcaster Alyn Shipton (BBC) interviewed Scofield on stage for about 25 minutes - nothing profound was said, but in many ways that set the tone for the evening, and it was an interesting format that I think could be worth repeating in the future (though not necessarily with Shipton, who to his credit wasn't as stuffy as I'd imagined...).

Next up was an interesting set by young London band Empirical. They've made lots of waves, garnered ecstatic press, and won many awards in their short single disc career-to-date. I can see why. Although what they do is essentially in the line of mid '60s Wayne Shorter @ Blue Note, their extended compositions, tight but loose feel and thoughtful soloing showed massive maturity. I hope they last the course and develop their ideas further - it's easy to see the germs of an original style emerging.

After a short intermission, it was time for the man who most people had probably made the trip to hear. Matt Penman replaced the tropically-bound Steve Swallow on bass, but otherwise this was a reprisal of the bulk of Sco's This Meets That album. The same incremental shifts apply just as much to his live shows as to his albums, and although I've not yet heard this latest offering, I have heard at least a dozen others so know largely what to expect.

'House of the Rising Sun' and 'Satisfaction' were reworked and rocked-out pot burners, and there were many of his familiarly wry originals with catchy lines and surprising twists. Strangely enough it was the spacious Americana of 'Shoe Dog' and 'Behind Closed Doors' that stood out most. I say 'strangely' because I've normally not got much time for post-Frisell pastoralism, but on this occasion the pieces offered a welcome departure from some of the little too pat and little too easy music that form his staples. Of course he's as fluent an improviser as you'll ever hear, but I find myself so familiar with his style that I now need to hear something a little different. These pieces and an unplanned absence from the stage to replace a snapped string - an excuse for an unscripted flugelhorn solo - made the show somehow feel a little more satisfying.

My immediate thoughts are that there's little left for Sco to do with this format (trio plus mini horn section). He's got a cosy niche for sure, and people will always want to hear him play, but is he working hard enough? Thinking back, all of my best experiences with Scofield have been watching him play off a foil. Put him centre-stage as the main feature and the extra dimension a Joe Lovano or a Larry Goldings brings to the music becomes apparent. Scofield is recognisable within seconds of hearing him and undoubtedly on jazz's 'A list', but whether or not I need to go out of my way to hear him again any time soon is pretty much up to him and depends on his next moves...

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