John Scofield – Überjam (2002)

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Much as Neil Young was the elder godfather to the grunge bands of a decade ago, guitarist John Scofield now enjoys a similar stature among the numerous funk-jazz jam bands that have sprouted up in the wake of the emergence of Medeski, Martin and Wood in the mid-nineties.

Many of these young guns found inspiration in Scofield’s funky offerings from his Gramavision label releases of the eighties, most notably “Still Warm”, “Blue Matter”, and “Loud Jazz”. The return to favor of what is now known as “acid jazz” lured JS back from his flirtations with more straight ahead acoustic forms of jazz.

Beginning with the 1997 collaboration with MMW called “A Go Go” and continuing with 1999’s “Bump”, Scofield spent plenty of time hanging out with musicians barely more than half of his 50 years, absorbing as much from them as they did from him. Much as his former boss, Miles Davis had done thirty years earlier in the pioneering days of fusion.

To much fanfare within jazz circles, “überjam” was released in January, 2002. While a few purists derided the nods to the hip hop culture, this album is actually an attempt to bring a younger generation into the jazz fold by incorporating elements of their sound without really abandoning jazz. An ambitious order, but I think Scofield pulls it off here.

Recording with his touring band this time around, JS strived for a tighter sound. To that end, he finally hired a rhythm guitarist, Avi Bortnick, who also handled sampling duties, Jesse Yusef Murphy on bass and Average White Band alum Adam Deitch on drums. Avi does a fine enough job on the rhythm axe, but his real contribution comes in his sampling skills. He brings an electronica edge to the familiar Scofield sound without trampling over it … a key component in winning over young converts.

Murphy’s bass is devoid of the thumb popping prevalent in most funky music but it is a fat (phat?) sound that’s thicker than a milk shake that sat in the freezer all night. Deitch, the “other” old guy in the band, never takes the path of least resistence to his beats, he always seems to go for the trickiest option.

John Medeski fills in some organ work on certain tracks, while flute/saxman Karl Denson also adds his talents where needed. Rather than a true progression from earlier efforts, “überjam” seems to instead consolidate ideas first brought forth in “A Go Go” and “Bump”. For example, the Eastern flavored opener ‘Acidhead’ incorporates a Scofield lick seemingly lifted directly from Bump’s ‘Fez’ while ‘Ideofunk’ sounds like a reworked ‘Jeep On 35’ from A Go Go.

‘Animal Farm’ is a frantic workout for Deitch and includes the most sizzling guitar solo from Sco since ‘The Nag’ on 1987’s “Blue Matter”. “I Brake 4 Monster Booty” was a hard tune to swallow for me at first because it contains a short rap, by Deitch of all people. But then you realize it’s all in fun.

The most successful marriage of jazz and hip hop can be found near the end of the record, the superbly written and performed ‘Snap Crackle Pop’. Like most Scofield records, it sounds better after repeated listens, because his compositions always sound simpler initially than they really are. Such is the mark of a gifted songsmith.

But John Scofield is more than that, he is at the top of the jazz musician heap these days. Or as Deitch proclaimed in his little rap, “Sco rocked with Miles and he’s one of the besssst”.

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