John Scofield – Past Present (2015)

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Fresh off his stint with Miles Davis in the mid-80s, John Scofield made a series of signature fusion records that got his solo career off the ground, earning him a reputation as a master guitarist and a rather good composer. But as the 80s turned into the 90s, Scofield made a stylistic U-turn, making straight-up bop records leading a quartet that included a young, up-and-coming tenor saxophonist named Joe Lovano. Eventually settling on Bill Stewart on drums and Marc Johnson on bass, the John Scofield Quartet hardly stopped Scofield’s momentum; in fact it catapulted him into the upper reaches of jazz guitarists, a status he enjoys to this day. Stewart and Lovano’s star power had likewise skyrocketed (Johnson was already well known from his stint in Bill Evans’ last trio).

Those Blue Note records, Time On My Hands, Meant To Be and What We Do are unabashedly straight jazz records that didn’t really test the frontiers of the idiom, and yet Scofield managed to make them stand out because he wrote catchy, melodic but tricky melodies for the group. Further, the immense musicianship on display was done with grace, looseness and rare wit. And lastly, Scofield never left the other sides of him at the door; he found a way to parlay his rock, funk, soul and RnB personalities into jazz rather effectively, never diluting the ‘jazz’ in the process.

For a group that made such a big impression, they didn’t last very long; by 1993, Scofield had moved on to something else. Sure, he’d return to acoustic-based jazz many times — including the star-studded one-off Scolohofo quartet that briefly reunited him with Lovano — but nothing he’s done over the last twenty-plus years intently marked a return to that early 90s feel. Until now.

The past is now the present, and Scofield got most of the old gang back together again for his Impulse Records new release, Past Present, out on September 25, 2015. Replacing Johnson (and later, the late Dennis Irwin) is another exceptional bassist, Larry Grenadier.

Put in few words, Past Present is a perfect companion to those trio of records of long ago, and the years in-between quickly melt away as soon as the record starts playing. You can draw a direct comparison between and Meant To Be‘s “Big Fan,” as both swing rock hard with rapid-fire hooks, and everyone puts in seasoned solos. “Season Creep” is one of Sco’s softer swings, full of soul as on Time‘s “Let’s Say We Did”, and the guitarist plays with genuine affection.

Those non-jazz influences show up on tracks such as the lazy blues “Slinky,” where Stewart is tossing accents everywhere, pushing against that relaxed vibe. Scofield does his best slowhand here, and Lovano brings enough soul to make Stanley Turrentine envious; this could make a great organ jazz song, too. “Get Proud” is a gently rendered funky RnB, and it’s hard not to love the grit coming out of Scofield’s guitar, especially when he bends notes with a flair. “Museum” is another gorgeous melody that doesn’t contain bop chord changes but this band knows how to make it swing while retaining the attractive true character of the song.

But if unadulterated bop is what you crave, there’s always the aforementioned “Chap Dance” as well as “Past Present,” which has a classic bebop type of a head and intertwining lines between Scofield and Lovano. Grenadier’s climbing/falling pulses keeps the thing firmly anchored while Stewart’s restlessness furnishes the tension.

There’s no need for this record to be any different from the Quartet’s original trio of albums to be great, but if I had to point out a distinction apart from, obviously, Grenadier’s bass, I might say that Scofield’s songwriting is even consistently tighter here than on those old records. Still, there’s not much daylight between this and the others to speak of. Which makes the present-day Past Present a new classic to go alongside those vintage John Scofield Quartet classics.

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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