Mike Stern Helps Set John Scofield Hollowbody Band Ablaze at Birdland
Guitarist John Scofield acknowledged that his band’s name was a misnomer at the beginning of each set during his weeklong mid-April engagement at Birdland in New York. There were, in fact, no hollowbody guitars in this Hollowbody Band. Last year when he inaugurated the group, Scofield went out with guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel along with the stellar, ever-swinging rhythm tandem of bassist Ben Street and drummer Bill Stewart. On that 2012 summer tour of Europe, Scofield played his trusty Ibanez AS-200, a semi-hollow instrument and his preferred axe over the past 20 years, while Rosenwinkel played his beautiful Moffa semi-hollow guitar. But with solid body guitar slinger Mike Stern replacing Rosenwinkel for this Birdland gig, Scofield decided to switch to a solid body himself (a Fender Custom Shop Telecaster that he has rarely played in public). With the two Tele players going toe-to-toe in aggressive, steely toned fashion, fretboard fireworks ensued.
The intensity level was a notch above last year’s tour with Rosenwinkel, whose warm-toned, horn-like flow and daring intervallic approach more closely mirrors Scofield’s own. On their April 17 performances, Stern’s relentless staccato attack and stinging, rock-tinged chops of doom, by contrast, served as the perfect foil to Sco’s six-string signature. The two modern day guitar heroes—who last played together during the early ’80s when their tenures in Miles Davis’ band overlapped—demonstrated remarkable chemistry right off the bat in weaving tight unison and harmony lines on the opener, a clever reworking of “How Deep Is The Ocean” that made them sound like a jazz version of the Allman Brothers. Scofield’s layering of an entirely new melody over the changes of that well-known jazz standard is essentially what Thelonious Monk did with “Blue Skies” in coming up with “In Walked Bud” or what Charlie Parker did to “Back Home In Indiana” in concocting “Donna Lee.” And considering how far afield it strayed from Irving Berlin’s original theme, he probably could have given it a new title. Each guitarist comped pianistically behind the other’s lengthy solos, thoughtfully leaving space and creating tension with their placement of the chords as Stewart kicked the tune along with his crisp, creative fills and unerring swing pulse. This opener built to an exhilarating crescendo with the two guitarists and Stewart engaged in a rapid-fire exchange of eights in classic bebop fashion.
Next up was Scofield’s lyrical mid-tempo swinger “Like This, But Better,” which had Stewart starting out on brushes. As the piece built in intensity, the drummer switched to sticks and Scofield dug in for an explosive solo that had Stern yelling out encouragement (and at one point pulling his hair straight up over his head for animated effect, as if to register complete hair-raising shock at Sco’s killer six-string work). “Slinky,” a funky number in 5/4 that Scofield began playing in 2010 with his New Quartet (featuring bassist Street, drummer Stewart and pianist Michael Eckroth, which was documented on the Inakustik DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert), had the guitarist alternating between rich chord melodies and toe-curling string bends during his extended solo. Stern’s fleet-fingered excursions up and down the neck of his guitar were equally potent but in a different vein than Sco’s. Following an accomplished bass solo by Street, the piece concluded with Stewart’s well-orchestrated eruption on the kit.
Their laid-back version of “Moonlight In Vermont,” a hit song for guitarist Johnny Smith and tenor sax great Stan Getz back in 1952, opened with a beautiful solo guitar intro by Stern that showcased another side of his musicality apart from his patented chops of doom: a beautiful command of chord melodies and an uncommon sensitivity on ballads. With Stewart on brushes and Street laying down a minimalist bass line, Scofield played thumb octaves behind Stern’s lyrical single-note lines. Sco’s solo brimmed with melodic invention, à la Sonny Rollins, and he closed the piece with a stunning coda that was a veritable clinic in the art of string-skipping and intervallic playing.
“Chaps Dance,” another Scofield original written for this band, was a blazing hard-boppish number with a Horace Silver kind of flair. A jaunty swinger reminiscent of Scofield’s urgent “Wabash III” (from his 1990 Blue Note album Time On My Hands, which featured the guitarist blending on the front line with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano), it was chock full of familiar quotes during the guitarists’ heated exchanges of eights, with Stern dropping in a taste of John Coltrane’s “Resolution” and Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon For Two” and Scofield nimbly referencing two familiar Miles Davis numbers, “Gingerbread Man” and “Walkin’,” in the midst of their fretboard frolics.
They came out for the second set with fingers ablaze on Scofield’s “The Last Blues,” navigating their way through the tricky head like Bird and Diz sailing through “Hot House.” They next settled into Scofield’s affecting ballad “Season Creep,” which had both guitarists eschewing chops for patience and finesse. Scofield’s “Museum” was a swinging vehicle for some heroic stretching by the two guitar greats, fueled by Street and Stewart’s syncopated hookup. In the course of this single tune they traveled from terrain as smooth and elegant as the Modern Jazz Quartet to as raw and nasty as Albert King jamming with Johnny Guitar Watson.
A delightful surprise on this energized second set of the evening was Stern’s soothing ballad “What Might Have Been” (from his 2001 album Voices), which he sang in dulcet tones and wordless vocals, as Richard Bona had done on the original recording. Scofield’s nuanced string-bending solo had him testifying like a gospel singer in church. They concluded this night at Birdland in uptempo swinging mode with a burning rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser,” a comfort zone for both players. Pushed by Stewart’s polyrhythmic pulse, Scofield and Stern reached some dizzying heights on this sizzling set-closer. Hopefully, they will be able to document their indelible chemistry on an upcoming studio or live recording.