Scofield’s Combo 66 Quartet Makes it Sound New Again at the Blue Note

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Guitarist John Scofield and his Combo 66 quartet recently wrapped up a run at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club.

(Photo: Courtesy DL Media)

John Scofield’s Combo 66 quartet was explosive during its second set at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club on Dec. 2.

Playing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (from his Grammy-winning 2016 release, Country For Old Men), the goateed guitarist, wearing a bright floral shirt and black jeans, shoved, pulled and prodded all manner of fiery notes from his custom Ibanez JSM20 guitar. His contorted facial expressions matching his guitar’s soulful bends and cries, Scofield finished his solo with a flourish, before handing the tune off to keyboardist Gerald Clayton.

Playing acoustic piano and Hammond B3 organ, Clayton began his solo politely enough, fingering stark chords and flowing runs. The audience relaxed. Perhaps sensing an opening, Clayton abruptly switched his focus to the Hammond B3 organ and the sci-fi journey began.

As if channeling Boris Karloff and Léon Theremin, Clayton made the B3 soar and swing ominously, creating wicked volume shifts and eerie harmonic clusters. Slivery and menacing with a knowing sense of humor, Clayton transported listeners from Nashville to War of the Worlds, all while keeping the song’s main melody essentially intact. Bassist Vicente Archer followed suit, walking a blustery line. Drummer Bill Stewart forced the dizzy atmosphere even further, dropping back during Clayton’s solo, flailing jagged snare drum and cymbal accents into a half-time cadence, churning and cajoling the sad-sack country standard into a big-city horror show.

The remainder of Sco’s second set consisted of material from his recent Combo 66 album, including cowboy-tinged “Willa Jean” and a touching ballad, “I’m Sleeping In.” The latter song—as with most of Scofield’s music—was titled by his wife, Susan Scofield. But Sco’s 10:30 p.m. set also greeted the Blue Note audience with “Ringing Out” (a Japan-only Combo 66 bonus track), the rousing “Early Ed” (which didn’t make the album’s final cut) and the closing tune, “Green Tea,” from 1998’s A Go Go. All of these songs, especially the first two, found the guitarist sounding intensely free and energized. No doubt unchained by Clayton’s grounding chordal work, Scofield blazed on riffs so chewy and elastic, it sometimes seemed as if he was referring to the epic days of his Blue Matter band. Stewart was also in brilliant form throughout the night, his 30-year relationship with Scofield so advanced and telepathic, he fired off tirades of empathetic, even vicious, drum combinations as polished as they were head-slamming.

A rousing rendition of Earl “Fatha” Hines’ “Second Balcony Jump” (as popularized by Dexter Gordon) was all Stewart needed to shine. Unleashed during a brisk tempo, his solo began with what sounded like a Zigaboo Modeliste-beat. He then suspended a static rhythm with his ride cymbal, contrasted by crisscrossing, three-against-two tom figures. Possessing one of the biggest swing beats in jazz, and executing every idea with crispness and Roy Haynes-worthy clarity, Stewart simply was on fire.

As heard on his 1996 album Quiet or during moments from 54, his 2010 album with Metropole Orkest and Vince Mendoza, Scofield remains a brilliant orchestrator/composer of intimate ballads. Though often injecting woozy notes and dissonant stabs, his gentle touch is pure emotion. Sco’s brief chordal flourishes grounded the languorous “I’m Sleeping In,” its pointed solo combining blues twists with Wes Montgomery-styled fullness, as Stewart created a lush backdrop with brushes on the snare. Clayton, ever the judicious judge of mood, played a beautifully rendered solo that recalled Lyle Mays for its sense of grand, cerebral sparseness. The song drifted away, oddly, on playful keyboard notes and curlicue guitar figures.

Though he repeated guitar lines from his decades-long career—his Ibanez JSM20 gurgling forth human-sounding cries, slippery runs and ready-to-keel-over figures—at the Blue Note Scofield made it all sound new again. DB




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