Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Scofield listens to all sides

By Jeff Wilson
Enquirer contributor

Once a sideman for Miles Davis, guitarist John Scofield has always been, like Miles, a musical nomad, eager to explore new trends and add his own twists to them. During Scofield's two-hour concert at the 20th Century Sunday night, there was ample evidence that his serendipity has paid off, as the strongest material has yet to be released.

These days, Scofield's stature is measured less by his achievements as a sideman and more by his ability to hire as his sidemen musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Joe Lovano. Employing Medeski, Martin and Wood as his rhythm section recently endeared Scofield to jam-band lovers.

The quartet he presently leads has the jam band aesthetic down cold, but it also throws some unpredictable ingredients - hip-hop, for example - into the mix.

Setting the tone for the first half of the show, "Acidhead" was a long, sprawling jam that wandered anywhere and everywhere but kept finding its way back to rock-solid grooves. As if to emphasize how important it was to keep the rhythm section locked tight, bassist Andy Hess spent most of the concert facing the drummer. When he played rhythm guitar, Avi Bortnik fortified the groove, and when he threw in samples, he helped stretch the canvas.

Midway through the show the quartet launched into a song that will appear on Scofield's next release, Up All Night. A dark and complex composition influenced by Afrobeat music, "Thikhithali" was uncharted and fertile territory.

The highlight of the show will also appear on the new record. The quartet's reading of an old R&B hit by the Dramatics, "What You See is What You Get," was as straightforward as it could be, and there was no reason to play it any other way. Although he stayed close to the melody, Scofield somehow coaxed more lyricism out of the song than seemed possible.

The title track from žberjam raised the intensity level, and featured a fiery duet between Scofield and the drummer, Adam Deitch. The set closed with the funky and off-kilter "I Brake 4 Monster Booty."

The encore, "Jeep on 35," originally appeared on a CD Scofield recorded with Medeski, Martin and Wood, A Go Go. This version seemed earthier than the original, especially during another muscular guitar-and-drum duet.

What virtues the 50-minute set by opener Eugene Goss contained were lost in a lousy mix, which made the music sound as if it was coming from another room.

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