Edinburgh’s annual Jazz & Blues Festival boasts an almighty guitar-base this year, firstly with the return of Scotland’s own Jim Mullen – argued to be the finest jazz guitarist the UK has produced – and his take on the songs of Robert Burns. Tonight another jazz guitar great takes the stage – the much-admired American six-stringer John Scofield. The show’s title, Yankee Go Home, alludes to its theme of reworking of the late 20th-century American songbook, although that’s maybe a glib description, given the range of songs covered – reinterpretations of tunes such as by Leonard Bernstein, Neil Young, Jimmy Webb, and The Grateful Dead.
No stranger to Scotland over the last three decades (I’ve seen him at Glasgow’s Tramway and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall among other venues), he wears two caps: the pioneering collaborator, bringing jazz guitar into the 1990’s and 21st century, recording with Miles Davis, Bill Frisell and John Medeski, fusing edgy funk and hip-hop in with an attractive melodic style, and the post-bebop band member, who can lift a jazz combo performance to soaring heights, such as his work with saxophonist Joe Lovano or drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette.
Whichever, it’s going to be exciting, as his near-mesmerising articulation, very much his own, is uniquely exciting – often lacking in a harmonic centre, with dizzying rapid runs up and down the fretboard, but never verbose or grandstanding. To come across his work for the first time is a revelation if your impression of jazz guitar is rooted in former greats such as Barney Kessel or Chet Atkins – Scofield’s delivery is highly imaginative and emphatic, with occasional highlights that betray his grounding in rock and funk stylings, such as leaving open strings to ring in the middle of an ascending run, or occasional use of his signature tobacco sunburst Ibanez guitar’s bridge pickup for added rasp.
The Assembly Hall – a centre of Divinity, the Kirk’s meeting place and another very-Edinburgh institutional setting for a venue – welcomed the guitarist and his trio with a familiar warmth, appropriate on a sultry evening following the country’s hottest day ever. Scofield, who chats cheerfully from the off, comments on how unused he is to this heat when visiting Scotland. The welcome also suggests that the audience is very familiar with the 70-year-old, who can look back on a fifty-year career playing alongside the decades’ greatest jazz eminences, from Charles Mingus to Herbie Hancock. And the relaxed feel is appropriate to the basis of American standards, which, as he explains, the quartet uses as a root for the exploratory musical excursions that you would expect – something borne-out over the next hour or so of highly-attuned, adventurous and playful improvising. Pianist Jon Cowherd contributes thoughtful and colourful soloing and interjections on grand piano and organ, underpinned by double-bassist Vicente Archer and Scofield’s oblique chords.
The tunes themselves often come quite heavily-disguised from the beginning, so it might take a while to recognise that a choppy funk number is in fact I Can’t Go For That by Hall & Oates, or to place the signature riff of The Byrds’ Hey Mr Tambourine Man, stripped of its bright jangle and rendered in Scofield’s warmly overdriven, jazzy tones. At other times, the songs are pre-announced, so you know what they are; and the straighter readings tend to be the numbers sung by drummer Josh Dion, who brings a bright and authentic soul voice to Jerry Garcia’s Black Muddy River, and the show’s closer, B B King’s slow blues How Blue Can You Get? (which contains the hilarious complaint ‘I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give ’em back!’). Such humour is not out of place in a relaxed, easy-going jazz show on a sticky evening – the material and the musician are time-served, but the places where the band takes us are new.
With thanks to Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival for their assistance. My review of Jeff Beck’s recent Glasgow show, which embraced a number of American pop standards, is also on artmag.co.uk. The Festival continues until 24th July.