April 19, 2009
Can I Get An Amen?
2009 | EmArcy Records
He left music school for Chet Baker and, not long after, he was in a recording studio hitting with Charles Mingus, the king of justifiable ego. John Scofield was a ripe young-one in the 1970s, a bandleader with a progressive musicality that resulted in some legendary collaborations – with Miles Davis, Pat Methany, Bill Frisell, Jack Dejohnette, and Herbie Hancock. Today, he is a jazz icon.
Scofield has nearly perfected the bebop, his style often copied by admirers. His 36-album discography is a culmination of the finest blues, soul, and funk – a super fine synthesis. But this time, Sco brings it around full circle – piety, my friends!
Piety Street, released by EmArcy Records a few weeks ago, is an album that can’t be compared to any of Scofield’s previous recordings, yet it seems a logical next step – bringing blues back to its gracious gospel roots. This is not to say Scofield has never played under the influence of gospel before, but it is the first time he has dedicated an entire album to the soul – and to the voice – of the church.
I didn’t know anything about Piety Street before listening, but from the first note I knew it was going to be different. “That’s Enough” opens with a sweet piano solo by Jon Cleary, followed by his rapturous vocals to Jesus. I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of religious music and typically tune out to anything of the sort. But this time, I was all ears. The collaboration between Scofield, Cleary, George Porter Jr. (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), John Boutt (vocals), and Shannon Powell (percussion) is an intelligent demonstration and expression of how the blues derives from the heavenly praise of the church. Despite its religiosity, it feels rather secular.
For the most part, the band stays in the shapes and fingerings of what it is to play the blues. But Scofield holds back. Piety Street isn’t like A Go Go or Time On My Hands – one amazing jam after another, all about Scofield up front with his impeccable staccato jazz forms. Instead, he dances around the vocals of Cleary and Boutt, giving just enough to make a simple point.
Piety Street has great, classic moments that highlight Scofield and his Ibanez, and at points contort with whammy and wah. In every song, you can hear a different piece of Scofield’s past. “It’s A Big Army” is chorused by a feel similar to überjam. Tracks “Ninety-Nine And A Half” and “I’ll Fly Away” have very familiar feels, though “The Angel of Death” could almost belong to Tom Waits. If it’s drama you love, “The Old Ship of Zion” stays true to the 12-bar blues.
Piety Street doesn’t force the holy spirits down your throat, but has a peaceful and gentle approach to the beauty of faithfulness. The music just feels like spring. And with festival season about to boom around the world, this will be great to hear while dancing barefoot in beer-slimed grass. Scofield is touring all over the place, but most importantly he’ll be in Brooklyn in July with Soulive – at Prospect Park, no less!