Scofield, Lovano Make SPACE the Place for Riveting Showcase

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John Scofield (left) and Joe Lovano perform material from their album Past Present (Impulse!) at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois, on Feb. 5

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Guitarist John Scofield is a familiar presence at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois (originally a lofty acronym for Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston). And while Feb. 5 marked the guitarist’s fourth visit to the choice room, it served as his first appearance there with tenor titan Joe Lovano.

Sco and Joe—as the twosome has come to be known—first assembled as a force to be reckoned with back in the late 1980s, alongside drummer Bill Stewart and the late bassist Dennis Irwin (though they also recorded with bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Marc Johnson). The pair toured extensively, releasing the formidable testaments Time On My Hands (1989), Meant To Be (1990) and What We Do (1993)—all on the Blue Note label.

After focusing on individual projects—Lovano on Blue Note, Scofield on Verve—the two convened a decade later for a supergroup summit with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Al Foster. The group’s moniker: ScoLoHoFo.

Nearly a dozen years have passed since Scofield and Lovano have had opportunity to reunite. But stars aligned for the guitarist’s Impulse! debut, Past Present, which was recorded with Stewart and bassist Larry Grenadier in March 2015 and released Sept. 25. Past Present is a fine document of the dynamic duo—it won this year’s Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Album—but there’s a measure of control and comfort to the proceedings that begs the live experience.

Touring bands are aware that Chicago-area audiences are discerning, and artists know they have to bring their “A” game. The audience at SPACE that night was a mixture of rock and jazz fans, drawn to Scofield’s hybrid chops. Numerous local musicians were in attendance and even saxophonist Chris Potter—who had boomeranged back to Chicago after a week at the Jazz Showcase to lead his big band at New Trier High School—was among the many onlookers in the crowd.

SPACE is special in that it affords the musicians a generous off-limits green room (too often lacking in jazz clubs), hence there’s a sense of occasion when the band marches through the crowd to the stage. This night, in addition to the usual lineup of Scofield, Lovano and bassist Ben Street, drummer Lewis Nash had been added to the bill. Nash, who was featured with Lovano on his Blue Note albums Tenor Legacy (1993) and On This Day ... At The Vanguard (2003), proved a standout stand-in, not dropping a beat on his first date with the group.

Lovano has a special knit with drummers, and he’s worked with the best, including Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell and Paul Motian. The inherent tension in his cascading tenor sax lines inhabits the rhythmical cracks—the wrong drummer could topple that queasy equilibrium.

The same holds true for Scofield, who tends to avoid direct, metronomic statements. So much was evident with “Slinky,” the lead-off track to Past Present, which followed a kick-off rendition of Lovano’s Motian tribute “Cymbalism,” first recorded on Trio Fascination (Blue Note, 1997).

“Slinky” is a 5/4 groove that began, to expectant applause, with a sidling guitar intro. Scofield interjected offbeat plucked hiccups into his ominous setup before harmonizing with Lovano for the head. The guitarist has been bashful about his composing, yet it’s a wonder why his vast well of pithy, unpretentious tunes are not played more readily by others. Like a creepy, clandestine conversation between backstreet hustlers, “Slinky” felt like it could bubble over into bad feeling any second.

Scofield maintained control of proceedings, always aware of the direction of his music and attentive to the shape of his hooky compositions. Lovano, on the other hand, seemed set to steal the show. Sporting a loose wine-colored shirt and matching pants, boat shoes, a woolly tea-cozy hat and an intriguing amulet hanging from his neck, the Cleveland-born saxophonist fit his exotic look with unparalleled playing, a style that has proved inimitable.

Whether he knew such peers as Potter were in the room, or was, as usual, intent on giving his all, Lovano pulled out all the stops, bucking his body in a manner redolent of the mighty Sonny Rollins and bulbing his embouchure (à la Archie Shepp) to help maximize bottom-end bell notes.

Given the rhythmic and tonal variety elicited electrically by Scofield—sitar-esque note bends, spasmodic fuzz effects—it’s remarkable Lovano’s wind-blown instrument could compete. Yet Lovano’s sound, paradoxically brittle and flinty, fuses masterfully with the guitarist’s tone. At several moments Scofield seemed genuinely in awe of his fellow frontman and raised his game accordingly, rocking out to the audience’s delight.

Scofield, a complete musician, comped carefully behind solos from Nash and Street, demonstrating steadfast attentiveness. Nevertheless, when the set is totally tight and internalized, however raw the surface sound, it can fall to the formulaic. Thus an important break from the slick book of Past Present came with “Ettenro,” a tribute to Ornette Coleman, which Lovano wrote with Coleman’s frequent drummer Blackwell in mind, waxing it on his first leader trio outing, Sounds Of Joy (Enja 1991), and reprising on Folk Art with Us Five (2009).

Suddenly, there was space and unpredictability, with texture and fragmented pulse at the forefront, and Lovano’s close study of Coleman’s expressionism and elliptical timing revealed itself.

Street, staring blankly into some distant horizon, countered the front line with economy and massive tone (thanks to staunch Scofield soundman Patrick Murray for faithful capture), contributing telling solos. Nash was clearly having a blast.

After closing the second set with a rousing “Past Present” (Scofield’s solo from the album’s title track was also nominated for a Grammy), the band returned for an encore, surprising with a sly and moving rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.”

“I’d have to say it was one of our most memorable nights of jazz,” said Dave Specter, well-known blues guitarist and managing partner at SPACE. “[There was] amazing musical chemistry between Scofield and Lovano. The rhythm section was on fire and the crowd for both shows was electric.”