critic’s pick 298: john scofield, ‘past present’

john scofieldThere are probably a dozen different inferences you could take away from the title of John Scofield’s newest recording, Past Present.

It could be the return to animated and immediate jazz the guitarist was known for prior to when contemporary alliances with Govt. Mule, Medeski Martin & Wood and Phil Lesh introduced his music to a new generation of predominantly rock and jam audiences. There is also the matter of the band backing Scofield on Past Present, which harkens back to a trio of outstanding Blue Note albums he cut roughly 25 years ago. Finally, there is the whole sense of musical invention that cuts to the core of Past Present. Its nine tunes, all Scofield originals, may suggest a glance backward to a sound and band from years ago. But a flashback it isn’t. Past Present couldn’t sound retro if it tried.

The album makes two lasting and commanding impressions from the get go. The first deals with the musical simpatico between Scofield and his principal foil from the ‘90s band largely reassembled here – saxophonist Joe Lovano. The two converse with remarkable fluency throughout Past Present, especially on the immensely animated Hangover, trading swing riffs and playing off each other’s bright phrasing (especially in the way Lovano’s tenor melody cracks as if he were laughing at a joke). The tune is also a blast because its catalyst is the other returnee from Scofield’s ‘90s band, drummer Bill Stewart. A player of deceptive intensity, Stewart set the tune’s colorful pace with an introductory roll and remains in the rhythmic driver’s seat for much of the album.

The other impression deals with Scofield’s sense of groove. Maybe it’s the work he has engaged in with younger, less jazz-specific artists in recent years (he jams with effortless glee alongside the avant-jam trio Medeski Martin & Wood on last year’s splendid Juice album). But his construction of the rubbery rhythm to the Past Present opening tune Slinky, as well as the way it quickly engages into sly but giddy unison with Lovano before backing into a solo with obvious reverence for the blues, is a journey unto itself. The same goes for Get Proud, with a guitar groove born out of soul and blues that bounces about through the entire tune.

There is also a less specific influence at work. The guitarist has mentioned in interviews that several tunes on Past Present are indirect references to his son Evan, who died from cancer in 2013 at the age of 26, and boast titles taken from phrases adopted by the younger Scofield. One, Mr. Puffy, was Evan’s description of himself while undergoing chemotherapy.

But the music isn’t dour at all. Mr. Puffy is a spring-like embrace of melody and subtle swing, an affirmation by a team of longstanding pals at peace enough with the past to celebrate the present.

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