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Artist: John Scofield Plays Ray Charles
Performance date: September 06, 2005
Publication: New York Times
azz Review | John Scofield

Speaking Soul in the Accents of Jazz


Published: September 8, 2005

For roughly the last decade, since leaping from Blue Note Records to Verve, the guitarist John Scofield has oscillated between sleek, modernistic small-group jazz and gritty electric funk. He has assembled different groups for these purposes and courted noticeably different crowds. (His trio headlines jazz clubs; his Überjam band plays the Gathering of the Vibes.)

But Mr. Scofield's latest Verve album, "That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles," aims straight down the middle. It's a groove record for grown-ups, with genius on its mind.

Mr. Scofield thrives in this territory; he has spent most of his career translating soul music's essence into a jazz syntax. The band that is having its debut this week at the Blue Note makes this task easier, with crackling backbeats and airtight arrangements that point to R&B but a responsive elasticity that's all jazz. Because Ray Charles is the guiding light of these efforts, the cross-pollination hardly feels like a stretch.

But that's not to say that Mr. Scofield isn't stretching. On Tuesday night he outfitted the early set's opener, "Busted," with a round of staccato gospel chirps, a row of bluesy octaves and finally a cascade of deliberately wobbly arpeggios. The following tune, "Sticks and Stones," found the drummer Steve Hass, the bassist John Benitez and the Hammond B-3 organist Gary Versace dropping an irresistibly funky groove evocative of the Meters; Mr. Scofield, treading some of his favorite turf, let loose a long and limber solo that kicked off every chorus with a fresh conceit.

Later, after what seemed like the conclusion of "Georgia on My Mind," he tossed ribbons of melody over a swampy second-line rhythm, and then dwelled longingly on an extended unaccompanied coda. He seemed reluctant to let the song go, and the audience was with him.

Meyer Statham, a singer known mainly in Boston, had the unenviable task of lead vocals for two-thirds of the set. He nailed "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "I Don't Need No Doctor," which, on Mr. Scofield's album, respectively feature the gospel queen Mavis Staples and the FM-friendly tunesmith John Mayer. Mr. Statham was less distinctive on "Georgia," failing to provide the crucial touch of melancholy; and "Let the Good Times Roll," which seemed to have been inadequately rehearsed by the band.

One of the evening's simpler pleasures was "Alabamy Bound," a number that doesn't appear on the album. Beginning as a honky-tonk two-step, it eventually broke into locomotive swing; the newness of the arrangement had the effect of keeping the musicians on the edge, and on their toes.

John Scofield continues through Sunday at the Blue Note, 131 West Third Street, Greenwich Village (212) 475-8592.


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