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On the 'Go Go'

[whitespace] John Scofield Louder Than 'Quiet': On his new album, John Scofield goes for the groove.

Guitarist John Scofield gets back to basics

By Nicky Baxter

J OHN SCOFIELD has always been known as a relatively quiet, subdued player. Now he's gone funky. Having made a name for himself playing with fusionist George Duke in the '70s and Miles Davis in the '80s, the Ohio native has snagged Downbeat magazine's top slot in the Electric Guitarist category five years running. You'd think he'd be aiming for number six. Instead, Scofield released an album featuring him on acoustic nylon-string guitar. Quiet was a first for Scofield. Never before had he used an orchestral approach to arranging for a band, nor had he integrated brass so effectively into his work. With his current outing, A Go Go (Verve), Scofield gets back to basics, backed by a three-piece unit.

He's joined on A Go Go by Medeski, Martin and Wood, a quirky ensemble that finds much pleasure in oddball rhythms and grooves. While the album's danceable bounce might surprise some folks, the jazz man is experienced when it comes to making risky music (check out his Blue Note session featuring six-string renegade Bill Frisell). Still, it's been a while since Scofield has teamed up with a group so insistently groove-ocentric. And the fact of the matter is that keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood supply much of the fuel for the funk-sparked fire of A Go Go. On tunes like "Chank," the off-kilter pulse twitches and shudders. Scofield's solo is masterful; it's not so much what he plays as it is what he leaves to the imagination. His sound bounds from the soulful to the sublime. Medeski, Martin and Wood push the beat forward; Medeski's organ in particular is pivotal, chugging away heartily one moment, delving into spacy atmospherics the next.

Another coolly rhythmic number, "Boozer," is a cut-and-paste job, one part "Have Mercy on Me," one part group improvisation. A real toe-tapper, "Boozer" finds Scofield alternating between a Southern soul-style chordal stroking and weirdo-rock skronk. The total effect is woozily delicious. Generally speaking, tasteful playing does not booty music make, but this is a tune that ought to fit right in on a clubland jukebox. The title track is oddly stirring, boasting a wayward, descending line, breezy keyboards and thumping bass. Wood's drum work is compactly kinetic, while Scofield's solo is a marvel of odd voicings, now humming like a restive beehive, then squawking like a barnyard rooster.

Throughout the session, Scofield's guitar manages to sustain a mellow mood without sacrificing drive and ingenuity. His playing has always had a stark, ominous feel to it; his preference for low tones only underscores this affinity, but that's not really the case here. A Go Go may not rattle your ear drums, but neither is it easy listening. But that's what we've come to expect from John Scofield whether he's plugged in or not.

John Scofield performs Tuesday (June 23) at 9pm at the Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. TIckets are $12 adv. (408/287-4087)

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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