Gov’t Mule + John Scofield – Sco-Mule (2015)

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Last month we got an advance listen to the first union in 1999 between the class of Southern rock, Gov’t Mule, and an elite jazz guitarist in John Scofield. The whole recordings of Sco-Mules (Provogue/Mascot Label Group) are finally available to the public, losing no urgency and fire over the fifteen plus years that it has sat in a vault. Sco-Mule documents the initial encounter between these two living icons of improvisation and diverse skills; a union that on paper seems a little unlikely but within the first minute in, it’s apparent this was meant to be.

During the time these pair of Georgia shows was performed, both acts were looking to expand their palettes into the same area. Gov’t Mule is a rock band but one with jazz-worthy chops and up to this point had taken little opportunity to fully show them off in the context of rock-jazz instrumentals. Scofield on the other hand was returning to the funky fusion of his mid-80s period, but this time expanding his audience by collaborating with jam bands that were appealing to younger generations. That got started with A Go Go (1997), where Sco used Medeski, Martin and Wood as his backing band, and he’d soon go on to work with Soulive, too. A chance encounter between Scofield and Mule guitarist and frontman Warren Haynes established the relationship between the two and eventually led to Haynes inviting the veteran jazzman to join them on stage. One rehearsal and they were all set to go.

With extended, winding performances (eleven tracks are spread out over 2 CD discs), Sco-Mule could be fairly be described as an update to the middle two sides of Eat A Peach, traversing over blues, rock, soul and jazz in such a way that you forget that these are distinct music styles. As musicians who are earnestly into all of these types of music, they tear down the artificial fences put up among them and run it through in a jam band blender. Joining Haynes, bassist Allen Woody, and drummer Matt Abts with Sco was keyboardist Dr. Dan Matrazzo, expanding the trio to a quintet with three formidable soloists.

Warning: if you don’t like endless soloing, this might not be for you. If you make exceptions for exceptional improvising, however, read on.

The festivities get going with a Scofield-penned tune originally appearing on A Go Go, the tense “Hottentot,” and it’s already clear that the disparate parts are fitting together nicely. Sco and Haynes play in unison on the theme, with Haynes on the left channel, Sco on right. Haynes delivers a sizzling, blues kissed solo followed by a Matrazzo synth solo that recalls Herbie’s on Chameleon. Scofield takes over, playing dirty, precise and deadly effective all at once, and Allen delivers a meaty bass line that holds it all together.

After taking on Wayne Shorter’s “Tom Thumb,” the boys start “Doing It To Death” with some free form rumblings with Woody square in the middle of it. Haynes starts a simple vamp and a good shuffling groove gets going. After the two guitarists trade riffs, Matrazzo solos on both organ and electric piano. And then Sco burns it up, working the wah-wah like a champ. Haynes counters with an incendiary solo of his own. An Indian-flavored slide from Haynes launches “Birth of the Mule,” which struts with a jazzy cadence but the guitar leads say ‘rock.’ Meanwhile, Allen’s walking bass is rock solid and the song culminates in a climatic Haynes/Scofield call-and-response.

Later to appear on Mule’s The Deep End, Vol. 1 with Scofield again guesting, “Sco-Mule” is a tough, funky, B3 drenched number. Sco’s solo is from outer space, punctuated by psychedelic scraping of strings. Disc 1 concludes with “Kind of Bird,” mostly an Allman Brothers-styled Southern boogie that moves into another quick-paced section propelled by Allen’s energetic, thrumming bass lines.

Disc 2 gives us alternate versions of “Hottentot” and “Kind of Bird” that are just about as good as the Disc 1 renditions, and two more nice and funky numbers “Pass The Peas” and the decidedly fast “Devil Likes It Slow.” Right at the end is a rendition of John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue,” appropriate because Coltrane inspired so many rock bands to stretch out and jam well past the usual, radio-friendly three minute length. It’s also where Scofield lays down what is probably his most devastating solo of the whole set, which is saying much.

John Scofield and Gov’t Mule have since recorded and played shows together, but as they say, it’s never as special as the first time. These concerts are made even more bittersweet because less than a year later, Allen Woody was dead, delivering a crushing blow to great rock band on the rise. But they survived and even thrived. With the story having a happy ending, there’s no better time than now to revisit a forgotten chapter from their happy beginning.

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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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