John Scofield, Uncle John’s Band Review
John Scofield’s Uncle John’s Band – A Confluence of Jazz Traditions and Sonic Experimentation
by Stamish Malcuss
John Scofield’s Uncle John’s Band finds the celebrated guitars bringing us an auditory landscape that interweaves the traditions of straight-ahead jazz with tinges of blues, folk, rock, and funk. This double album on ECM Records features Scofield in a dynamic trio setting with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart. The album’s fourteen tracks provide a deep well of material to dissect while giving a journey through various styles, from bebop and post-bop to folk-infused melodies and funk-driven rhythms with rock tonal edges, all brought to life by Scofield’s complex jazz guitar style.
From the get-go, Uncle John’s Band captures the listener’s attention through its seamless integration of multiple musical idioms. The album showcases Scofield’s fluency in a plethora of styles. Tracks like “How Deep” epitomize swing jazz with a modern flair. The rhythmic interplay between Scofield and Stewart offers an exciting display of call-and-response dynamics. Meanwhile, “TV Band” offers a funkier lexicon, showcasing Scofield’s versatility and the trio’s ability to sustain a groove while providing ample room for improvisation.
Scofield’s manipulation of his guitar’s tonal colors emerges as one of the album’s distinguishing features. The guitarist employs an array of effects, including overdrive and loop pedals, as is evident in “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The track evolves from modal musings to harmonic explorations, all the while incorporating modern extensions of traditional jazz guitar techniques, including looping and the nuanced use of overdrive. Here, Scofield’s control of his guitar’s timbre—switching from clean to dirty tones—is subtle and intentional, and adds color variations to the auditory experience. Starting with a texture-rich in sonic complexity enabled by Scofield’s use of looping and guitar effects. Stewart’s drumming, far from being a mere time-keeper, participates in a dialogue with the guitar and bass, giving the tune its structural integrity. Scofield’s solo here blends traditional jazz elements—note his approach to chord tones and the incorporation of tension—and influences from country, blues, and funk genres. Listen for his unique use of bends, not commonly heard in straight-ahead jazz contexts.
“How Deep” is a straight-ahead swinger that provides a forum for the rhythm section, featuring Archer on bass and Stewart on drums, to lay down a tight swing pocket. What sets it apart is the conversation-like interplay between Stewart and Scofield. After each phrase, Stewart’s drumming provides a commentary on what Scofield just articulated. Note the balance between Scofield’s single-note lines and chordal figures—a textbook example of balanced soloing.
Neil Young classic, “Old Man,” is transformed into a jazzy number with a folkish tint. The technique Scofield employs, picking closer to the bridge or neck for tonal variation, is particularly noteworthy. It’s not just about the notes played; it’s also about how they are articulated. Stewart and Archer contribute to the rhythmic texture, offering a sonic playground for Scofield to unleash his improvisational genius. One of the most captivating elements across tracks like “The Girlfriend Chord” is Scofield’s constant tonal shifts achieved through pedal effects and picking position. This lends a dynamic, evolving character to his solos.
Archer and Stewart provide a robust foundation and conversational dynamic throughout the album. Stewart’s brushwork in “Somewhere” adds a delicate intricacy that underscores the emotive power of the ballad. Meanwhile, Archer’s walking bass in “Ray’s Idea” serves as a propelling force, pushing the ensemble forward in their collective musical journey. Scofield combines traditional jazz lines with chordal innovations. His bending techniques and alternative voicings add a new dimension to the harmonic language. Stewart’s drumming is to be noticed. His capacity to add rhythmic complexity, especially in tracks like “Budo,” keeps the listener engaged and adds depth to the musical structure.
The artistry exhibited in Uncle John’s Band by Scofield and his trio is both a retrospective and a forward-looking endeavor. It pays homage to jazz traditions while also looking ahead to what the genre can become, adding layers of complexity in terms of technical skills and emotional depth. The album flows with musical ideas, making it a must-listen for those interested in the evolution of jazz music and genre-bending innovation.