One of the great strengths of the London Jazz Festival lies in organising substantial shows that present major artists in a variety of contexts. This was the case with last year’s triumphant birthday concert from John Surman, and once again in this performance from New York-based guitarist John Scofield.
The promotional material for this concert suggests that this is the first time that Scofield’s great trio with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart has performed in London. Given the long-standing and exceptionally fruitful relationship between these fine musicians, this is almost impossible to believe. For the concert’s second half, Scofield returned to a successful collaboration with Scotland’s National Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of the venerable but controversial Tommy Smith.
Scofield is a gutsy guitarist deeply rooted in the blues and in early rock ‘n’ roll and the trio set demonstrated the wide range of his influences. The set incorporated abrasive improvisation, loving and sincere detours into the standard repertoire, recognition of the links between blues, jazz and the country songbook and some deep, hugely impressive groove playing.
The connection between the three musicians in this group is remarkably strong. On Chicken Dog, from the A Go Go album, Stewart’s masterly second line groove sat brilliantly with Swallow’s rumbling bass line. By way of contrast, the group’s take on George Jones’ A Girl I Used To Know was appropriately lyrical and emotional, with Scofield channeling some of the elegiac guitar atmospherics familiar from the work of Bill Frisell.
All three players are expressive and idiosyncratic. Steve Swallow’s amplified acoustic bass is an unusual instrument in jazz – the way he plays it (using a plectrum) even more so. He is one of the most gifted and melodic bass soloists in the world – his talents brilliantly demonstrated on These Foolish Things. Bill Stewart is awe-inspiring not just in his energy and dexterity, but in his ability to make intricate and complex drum material sound musical. Closing the set with The Low Road, a gritty blues piece with humourous false endings, the group reached a new pinnacle of dynamism and interaction. Scofield unleashed a thrilling, kinetic solo that grew ever more tumultuous as he moved closer to his long-standing colleagues.
The second set required Scofield to adapt to a radically different context. Initially it seemed that these expanded arrangements (by gifted arrangers such as Mike Gibbs and Florian Ross) performed with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra might occupy rather conventional classic Big Band territory, a context in which Scofield is very rarely heard. Yet the bold, insistent and meticulously executed arrangements of Scofield tunes such as Go Blow and Marcus Miller and Miles Davis’ Splatch and Tutu accommodated Scofield’s hard grooving approach.
When doubling with Tommy Smith’s saxophone, Scofield offered a timely reminder of just how effective the guitar can be in supporting themes and melodies. The working rapport between Smith and Scofield appeared honest and strong, with plenty of mutual respect. The orchestra seemed well-drilled, with Alyn Cosker and Kevin Glasgow providing a solid, unwavering rhythm section. Cosker got a good deal of solo time at the drums, playing even more frenetically that Stewart, although perhaps lacking some of his grace and melodic finesse.
The second set suffered a little from sound issues – with the horn backings occasionally overpowering soloists. This is a minor quibble though. It is a satisfying rarity to see one of the world’s leading guitarists performing in such contrasting settings in one gig. It is concerts such as this that make the London Jazz Festival so much more than just a series of jazz concerts at familiar jazz venues in London.