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Published: 2001/09/19
by David Kleinman

Up to Something New: John Scofield at the North Sea Jazz Festival

The train from Gouda to the Hague lasted forty minutes or so. I brought something to read, but I mainly stared out the window across the Dutch countryside. Every once and a while a windmill popped into view on the horizon; I wondered if Cervantes had ever been to Holland. The fields looked ultramodern, as if the Dutch knew something about cultivation Americans didn’t. The past two days of the North Sea Jazz Festival had left me full of energy, even though I rarely got to bed before the sun came up: There were no trains to Gouda after midnight, so when I would get to the train station at 3:30 (after ten hours of jazz), I would take the train to Amsterdam and spend the rest of the night typing at the Easy Everything Internet cafe on Damrak.

The train slowed to a stop just before a bridge over a small stream. The windows were open in my car, but all I could hear were the yawns and sighs of fellow passengers. I thought of the last time I had seen Scofield, in Chicago. He had just released Works for Me, and I was working on an essay about the ability of MMW to change absolutely, depending on whether they were playing electric or acoustic. I listened to Works right after listening to BumpSco’s ability to change his sound from album to album was apparent.

The train sat still as I checked my watch repeatedly. Dutch people know their jazz: Sco’s show would be crowded. And I hadn’t been to the venue he was playing at before. The North Sea Jazz Festival (July 13, 14, 15) was played on fourteen or so different stages in the Congress Centre, a very large convention center. Some of the stages were set up in rooms more fitting for a Star Trek convention, and some were actual amphitheaters with capacities ranging from five hundred to ten thousand people. The sound was good at all of them. I looked at my programthe page was still turned to Saturday’s schedule. The name to the far right in a white box was Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian trumpeter whom I suggest you check out. Nils, like Herbie Hancock the night before him, played a hybrid form of jazz: some thing somewhere between fusion, electronica, and Zeppelinesque hard rock. Nils played with two DJs, and Herbie, one. Nils played with a tone more intricate than a thousand years of European history. Herbie sounded like he did in his days playing with Miles.

I figured Scofield would have the same band and would be playing material mainly from Works and A Go Go. The last time I saw him was a few months before, and I hadn’t heard anything about him doing anything new. Eventually the train started up again after a few trains had passed us going the other direction in a series of whooshes. I had gotten on what is known as a Stoptrein. This means the train may or may not stop along the way to wait for other, or, Sneltreins, to pass by. In my experience, it always stopped. The slow ride into Den Haag Centraal was typical of European train stations. Expecting beauty when entering a new city, one sees the rusted signs of industry. I wondered if I was in New Jersey. I also wondered if Milosevic was still in the Hague. Would they let him go to the festival if he liked jazz? After a tram ride and a wait outside in the midst of thousands of excited Hollanders, I walked through the maze which is the Congress Centre to find the Paul Acket Paviljoen. Composed mostly of stone benches that double as steps, this venue was one of the better ones because it had a large floor in front of the stage. The Dutch are some serious jazz aficionados, and thus prefer to sit and bob their heads instead of getting their grooves on. I didn’t mind this, but I wanted to boogie for Scofield. The day before had begun with Soulive. Almost everyone was sitting down, something I found quite irksome as they had laid down some serious funk.

I saw Jesse Murphy, the bassist from the Jazz Showcase gig in Chicago. Jesse was tuning an electric bass, not an upright. After I had gotten the attention of the Oranjeboom guy, I saw an acoustic guitar stage left and Scofield’s rig stage right. So the set up was to be different. He could certainly play the A Go Go material with another guitarist. I was somewhat disappointed because Brad Meldauh (the pianist on Works) had played on Friday and had stunned me, questioning my beliefs in the directions music could goI’d hoped they might play together. I saw a table with electronic equipment next to the guitarist, but after last night at Nils Petter Molvaer, I knew that many guitarists at the festival were taking their foot pedals off the ground for some reason. The band came out, and Avi Bortnick went to his samples, setting out with the type of feel-out-the-sounds overture I often ascribe to MMW’s electronic playing. This lead straight into some funk, with the samples playing a large role. Bortnick had his hands fullswitching between funky guitar, space guitar, and samples.

They played “Idio Funk,” about which Scofield said, “It’s called that because it is kind of stupid. But it’s ok to be stupid sometimes, right?” Scofield also told the crowd (repeatedly) that this was new material, and that they would be heading into the studio in less than two weeks time. Light and airy, the tune’s main melody was whistled by Bortnick. When Sco got into his solo, I heard something from him I have never heard. It sounded like he was using an octave doubler, and, indeed, he did have an octave doubler, as well as the Line 6 Delay Modulator, which enables loops and backwards guitar. I’ve always thought one of the best things about Scofield’s sound was his characteristic stumbling quality, caused by almost always playing behind the beat. But on this tune, Scofield played with a direct fluencyanalogous to Trey Anastasio. I had never heard such lyricism from Sco. Even on Works, when he is at his most melodic, there is still a sense of more suggested than played. It’s as if he is talking to you and never saying exactly what he means. Not to confuse: this is what I love about John Scofield’s playing; it was fascinating (though) to hear him play in another way, in another direction: somewhere new.

“No Polo” was another tune Sco announced from the stage. Though he did comment that the tunes didn’t really have names yet. Each tune explored distinctive areas of the new medium in which Sco is working. The second time I saw Sco in Chicago, I got there very early as it was Saturday. I sat up front, and for at least twenty minutes saw Murphy messing with the sound of his bass with the mixing board. He was testing to see how deep he could get it. That night, after the first tune, Sco turned to Murphy and said he liked the new sound. Murphy’s bass at the North Sea Jazz Festival was certainly felt and not heard it was so low. Most of the tunes were written by Sco (with an acknowledgement to the help the others gave in writing them), but one was written by Avi, the guitarist/DJ—or would it be SJ? Sample Jockey? This tune was the prettiest they played the entire night. I don’t recall solos or jamming, just a sweet melody. This tune was played in the absence of the samples. So, in Avi Bortnick, we have someone using samples who is concerned with melody and harmony. This is a good thing.

When the band came out to play the encore, Scofield said this: “I think this is about the seventy-fifth time I have played at the North Sea Jazz Festival. It’s great that there is such a jazz audience in the Netherlands. In the States recently, we’ve been called a jam band. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I guess it means we can just make it up as we go along. . . and I guess that’s what we’re going to do here. . . . well, we kind of know what we are going to do. . . .” The final night, at Bill Frisell, I ran into a guy also named David from Toronto. He said Scofield played the same material at the Toronto Jazz Festival a few weeks before, but the band was tighter and the tunes better formed at the North Sea Jazz Festival. So I guess the John Scofield Band is a jam band.

John Scofield is heading in another new direction. His new band is composed of Avi Bortnick on guitar and samples, Adam Deitch on drums, and Jesse Murphy on bass. The new direction is towards electronic music. And I don’t think I can be anymore specific than that: it’s not jungle or house or ambient or etc. The reason for this is that the samples are played by a guitarist and a songwriter, and his musical ear produces something different than a DJ/SJ who is not trained on a “traditional” instrument.

Is jazz proceeding towards electronica? The Miracle Orchestra, the Disco Biscuits, Phish, and numerous other “jam bands” seem to be indicating this. But the tell tale signs are musicians who have played straight-ahead jazz in the past but are now playing electronic music. Musicians like Nils Petter Molvaer, Herbie Hancock (though one could argue that Herbie invented electronica), and Scofield. Also pointing in this direction is St. Germain, and their (or his) release on Bluenote, Tourist. I’m sure there are many others, and I’m also sure we’ll be hearing them and you’ll be reading about them in the future.

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