John Scofield – Piety Street (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

John Scofield isn’t regarded as the top two or three jazz guitarists of the last couple of decades just because he’s such a great guitar player. The thing that sets him apart from almost all the others is his ability to play a different style of jazz (or even something outside of jazz) on each record and still make it sound like a John Scofield record, not some vapid genre exercise. He makes it even sound second nature, as his playing style incorporates so many of those styles, and at once. Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock…it’s all there in nearly equal measure.

Sco’s last album was firmly in the jazz realm, although This Meets That sported some classical touches to it. For his next album, Scofield wanted to make a blues album, but that idea soon evolved into making a gospel record. It evolved further into making a gospel record with a New Orleans flavor. Named after the famed NOLA studio it was recorded in, Piety Street, released last week, marks another surprisingly successful sharp directional change for this most malleable of guitarists.

For this project, Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart just weren’t going to do, as good as they are. Scofield assembled a whole new band perfectly suited for this kind of music: legendary ex-Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., the British-born Bonnie Raitt keyboardist Jon Cleary, Raitt’s longtime drummer Ricky Fataar, New Orleans vocalist John Boutté (vocals), and another New Orleans musician, drummer/percussionist Shannon Powell from Harry Connick, Jr.’s band.

Neither gospel nor New Orleans R&B is new to Scofield’s repertoire; “Heaven Hill” is a church-inspired number he wrote for Blue Matter way back in 1986, and he did a great cover of the Meters’ “Sissy Strut” on Flat Out two years later. For Piety Street, though, the plunge is with both feet in. This ain’t no “gospel-tinged” music, folks, it’s gospel.

You might think, “well, in order to ‘keep it real,’ there has to be singing on it.” John’s got you covered, there. No, no, he doesn’t sing himself, but Boutté and Cleary takes turns handling that chore, and while they’re no big, angelic choir backing, the sweet sounds of Sco’s guitar more than makes up for that. Add to that, all but two of the thirteen tracks are gospel covers, and two of them are even vintage enough to be credited to good ol’ “Traditional.”

Dorothy Love Coates and the Gospel Harmonettes’s “That’s Enough” quickly introduces Scofield’s approach to worship music. His B.B. King licks provides the only lecture you’ll need on the strong connection between gospel and the blues. Cleary testifies the lyrics with sweet conviction and the way J.S. cleverly plays underneath him during the last chorus means this isn’t going to be just a guitar record. Rather, it’s a gospel record through and through that happens to be terrifically accentuated by the guitar.

In fact, Scofield himself doesn’t even see himself as the key player on his own album; in a recent interview he calls Cleary the “star of the record.” I think that the actual star is the one who picked these songs, arranged them, provided maximal guitar work to them, and whose name the album is attributed to. But it’s hard not to argue that Cleary, who provides all but three lead vocals and some very sympathetic organ and piano work throughout, is a pivotal player on this album.

The Englishman even comes close to overtaking the leader as he does on the blissfully soulful remake of “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” It’s a song that’s both tight and loose; Porter and Fataar make for an supertaut rhythm section, but the songs ends with a charming impromptu reggae jam that was left on the record.

“Something’s Got A Hold On Me” (see video of live performance below) has a lot of good things going for it, starting with Cleary and Boutté sharing lead vocals. Scofield’s rhythm guitar mimics a Hammond B-3 and he adds a zesty dash of wah-wah in his lead parts. Thomas Dorsey’s “The Old Ship Of Zion” comes closest to realizing Scofield’s original vision of making a blues record. His bent, carefully selected notes on this ten (not twelve) bar blues with a few octaves thrown in make it unmistakably his blues. Boutté follows with a stirring vocal.

The somber Hank Williams’ country flavored “The Angel Of Death” done in 6/8 time. With Scofield using some heavy tremolo on his guitar, the resulting lonely ambiance gives this the sound of a T-Bone Burnett produced track.

Even Scofield’s two originals are authentic gospel. “It’s A Big Army” features a foot stomping chorus of “I’m a soldier in the Army of The Lord.” “But I Like The Message” is all instrumental, but perfectly marries Cleary’s funky church piano to Fataar’s Latin beat. Sco himself wrings some down and dirty tones from his Gibson.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from this record, but I should have known better than to have low expectations. Gospel has always been a big part of the mosaic of styles John Scofield uses to create his one very unique signature sound. Drawing upon that and surrounding himself with the right players, Piety Street is a natural for him. Whether you get your inspiration from Jesus or just good music, this one is bound to sound divine to you.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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