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The Ax Man Cometh

Groovalicious jazz guitar guru John Scofield steps into the bandleader role


Once upon a time, John Scofield was the Peck's Bad Boy of jazz, a cat who could rough up a polite bebop session with a smirk and a squealing six-string. His salty guitar-playing, flavored with fatback and steeped in deep blues, spiced up Miles Davis' rollicking bands of the mid-'80s. Sco--that's what his friends still call him--was Davis' not-so-secret weapon, the one cat that could always match the trumpeter's glistening horn with a little shine of his own.

At the time, the legendary Miles was a certified senior citizen. Scofield, a mere whippersnapper, was a precocious 30-something. Yet between this pair of world-class improvisers, there was no apparent generation gap. Teacher and student were joined at the hip by the magically cohesive properties of the curriculum: good music.

That was 20 years ago. Miles, bless his cantankerous heart, is dead and gone. And these days, Scofield's the graybeard and hog-boss of perhaps the finest touring combo in his long career as a leader. When the John Scofield Band, accent on Band, returns to the Cat's Cradle on April 22, a hoard of butt-waggin' jam-band junkies will cue up to root for the old geezer, age 50, and his combo of--relatively speaking--kids.

Scofield's trio--guitarist Avi Bortnick, bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Adam Deitch--boast an average age of 29. Does playing with a younger generation of musicians ever make him feel old-school?

"Of course," says Scofield during a recent phone interview to the Indy from the road (the group was somewhere outside Lexington, Ky.). "And it's not just the band. It's the audience. It's the people that work at the record company. I'm surrounded by youth, but that's OK. It doesn't hurt my feelings because we're getting so much positive feedback about this music. And when the band starts to play, all the differences in our ages disappear. We're simply making music together."

The band's invigorating all-for-one attitude is documented on a brand-new CD. Überjam (Verve) contains oodles of Scofield's trademark jazz-meets-blues solos--no surprise there. What separates this album from a dozen other entries in the guitarist's discography, however, is how easily the improvisation glides along, propelled by the incessant purr of the rhythm section. Running the stylistic gamut from nervous drum 'n' bass clicks to funk-laden New Orleans-style R&B, the percolating grooves demand some sort of physical response from the listener. When's the last time you laid ears on a jazz disc that both challenged the mind and propelled the booty? That's Überjam, a dance record with brains.

Scofield reveals that the band's rare chemistry is no accident. "These guys grew up on virtually the same music I like. Our roots are very similar," he says. "They know a lot about funk, including classic stuff like The Meters and James Brown. They know jazz. They even know my old music. Plus, they're plugged into hip hop and a whole lot of contemporary pop that I know nothing about."

He pauses for a quick laugh: "Hey, isn't it obvious? I chose these guys for a reason." (Translation: Mama Scofield didn't raise no fool.)

One of the highlights of Ü-jam is the interplay between Scofield and guitarist Avi Bortnick. Both bodacious guitarists, they approach their respective axes from opposite angles, resulting in a delicious yin-yang thang. While Scofield stands front and center, machine-gunning rapid single-note lines, Bortnick slugs it out in the trenches, purposefully strumming away in constantly changing chord patterns. Think of the truly masterful rhythm guitarists in the funk hall of fame: chicken-scratchin' Leo Nocentelli of The Meters and the throbbing juggernaut of Jimmy Nolen-Country Kellum from James Brown's best combos of the '60s. Bortnick's trick bag contains some of that sleight of hand and more.

"It took me years to find Avi," says Scofield, who happens to be Bortnick's biggest fan. "Since I didn't want to have a guitar band with two guys battling it out, I was looking for a rhythm player, and he's a master. I really think we blend together well because Avi's playing is so different than mine. He doesn't seem to mind if I play solos all night long. He's not frustrated because he realizes that rhythm guitar is his specialty."

"Then again, maybe I'm fooling myself," Scofield adds with a laugh, unable to resist the temptation to mess with his right-hand man. "Maybe Avi wants to play more lead guitar--and he's just being a nice guy."

Besides being a nice guy, Bortnick is also the band's resident mad scientist, with a laboratory of digital effects that includes a multitude of rhythm loops and samples. On stage, real drums courtesy of Adam Deitch commingle with chattering robo-beats, often triggered by Bortnick.

"I love Avi's effects," Scofield says with enthusiasm. "He's the electro-musician of the band. Of course, we're different than typical ambient and trance bands in that we're actually playing our instruments--we cue the loops to play with us. It's not about two programmers with a couple of laptops. We're primarily a live band that uses loops and samples to enhance the music."

For a middle-aged veteran of the jazz wars like himself, life is good. After recording the CD A Go Go and gigging alongside jam-band heroes Medeski, Martin and Wood five years ago, his audience changed--and so has his means to getting from point A to B. Scofield is that rare jazz cat who can afford a tour bus.

"Can you believe it?" he muses. "We've actually moved up the economic ladder a step or two. The bus is fantastic. The other guys can go hang out in the back and stay up all night. Meanwhile, I can go to sleep, just like the grown-ups do." EndBlock

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