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Published: 2006/06/23
by Pat Buzby

A Trio Beyond: DeJohnette, Scofield and Goldings

The Portuguese word “saudades” is notoriously hard to translate, but the internet’s best shot terms it as “sadness associated with a longing for times past.” Like the word, the Trio Beyond CD Saudades (ECM) is many things. It is a 2004 tribute to music that has not lost the explosiveness it had in 1969. It is a document of one night of spontaneous, crackling work by three of jazz’s best living musicians. It is an acknowledgement of the past, but with enough energy to drive away any feeling of sadness.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette initiated the project now known as Trio Beyond, featuring guitarist John Scofield and organist Larry Goldings, as a tribute to the Tony Williams Lifetime. After leaving Miles Davis’s band in early 1969, Williams formed Lifetime, featuring guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young, and committed himself to the then-new idea of combining jazz and rock with a boldness that outpaced anyone else on the scene, including his former boss. While most jazz/rock hybrids of the time offered either simplistic jazz or timid rock, Emergency!, Lifetime’s 1969 debut, was raw to the point of being proto-punk while matching the speed and intensity of Coltrane.

The three members of Trio Beyond have different perspectives on Lifetime. DeJohnette, who arrived on the New York jazz scene shortly after Williams had begun to make waves with Davis, became friendly enough with the drummer he would replace in Davis’s band to make him aware of McLaughlin, whom DeJohnette had met in an extended stay in London while touring with Bill Evans in 1968. On the other end of the spectrum, Goldings, born in 1968, had his only encounters with Williams when the drummer called him in 1997 about doing a new project in the Lifetime vein, a plan tragically scuttled by Williams’s untimely death in February 1997. “We didn’t get very far, we just spoke a couple of times about it, and I never actually met the man, but we spoke about it and I certainly gave him the thumbs up,” Goldings comments.

Scofield, a budding jazz musician at the time Lifetime began, saw the band in 1969 at the legendary NYC club Slug’s, and the following year at Port Chester’s Capital Theatre after bassist Jack Bruce had joined for the second Lifetime album, Turn It Over. When Scofield’s career began in the 70’s, his first gig with Williams came at a performance at Sweet Basil with violinist Mike Nock: “The first thing that struck me was that the sound he got out of the drums was so beautiful, orchestral and huge,” Scofield recalls. “When he hit the cymbals and the drums, it was an advance. The quality of the tone from his hands, and his ride cymbal sounds, it was like Pablo Casals or Horowitz. That killed me.” Shortly after that came an album with Terumasa Hino featuring Scofield, Williams and bassist Ron Carter as the rhythm section: “Tony was very nice to me and he didn’t have to be. There was one point when Ron Carter was saying that he didn’t want to do another take, and Tony knew that I wanted to try because I had made a mistake on my solo, and Tony stuck up for me.”

As a jazz guitarist in the 70’s, Scofield went to work in a field dominated by McLaughlin. “He went beyond the orthodox straight jazz guitar sound, expanding on that by using elements of rock guitar. Also, dealing with McLaughlin, I had to find my own way, because I had to find other stuff besides playing real fast in that staccato way that he played, which I couldn’t do. I got more of a horn-like thing and a legato sound, probably as a result of failing in copying him. (laughs).” The issue became especially apparent when Billy Cobham, after gaining fame in McLaughlin’s post-Lifetime Mahavishnu Orchestra, hired Scofield for his mid-70’s solo band: “I almost never listen back to old tapes, but somebody sent me a tape of a gig we had in Dallas, Texas, a radio broadcast, and I was amazed at all the McLaughlinisms in my playing, because I don’t do that anymore and I didn’t even remember that I did it, but I was playing these fast pentatonic phrases, trying to sound like John.”

DeJohnette had the idea of paying tribute to Lifetime when he was artist-in-residence at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2003. Although he put the idea on hold when Scofield and Goldings were unavailable for the festival, they presented the Williams tribute, including songs from Emergency! and Turn It Over as well as other material relating to the three original Lifetime members, at California’s Yoshi’s nightclub in 2004, followed by a European tour in November of that year. On the final night at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the group rolled tape, which yielded Saudades. By this time, all three musicians agree, the project had evolved beyond the initial idea of homage, so, although the packaging features photos of Williams and the musicians’ tributes to the late drummer, the band name establishes the trio’s independence from Lifetime. Still, Scofield says, “When you play modern jazz today, it’s all a tribute to Tony Williams.”

Explaining his musician choices, DeJohnette comments, “John Scofield has his own unique approach to guitar. I wanted to have more of an original appeal. He’s got a unique harmonic and rhythmic approach to playing, and he’s got a funky, bluesy undertone to his sound, which distinguishes him from a lot of other guitarists.” Regarding Goldings, he adds, “I was always impressed with Larry. He has a broad concept of all kinds of genres, and he’s a hell of an organ player, particularly in the independence of his left hand and his right. You can hear it in the record when he walks bass lines, it’s totally independent. He handles it all, at a high level of creatively and quality.” Scofield adds, “Larry is a giant. He’s one of the great orchestrators. I love the organ, and although his roots are in Jimmy Smith, Larry Young and Jack McDuff, he’s gone beyond that. He doesn’t play organ music, he just plays music.”

Judging from the CD, it might seem like a challenge for Scofield and Goldings to solo over DeJohnette’s relentlessly interactive drumming, but, Scofield comments, “It’s a challenge that I love. It’s not where am I going to play?,’ because he’s always listening. There are busy fusion drummers that play a bunch of worked-out stuff. That’s not what Jack’s doing. Jack is creating in the moment, and listening to what you’re playing and making his sounds fit with you. He can be playing a lot of stuff at the same time you’re playing a lot of stuff, but he’s always listening to you and to himself, and hopefully I’m doing the same thing, so then it can all work together. That makes it easy to play with him. If your solo makes sense, if you’re playing from the heart and playing some pure music, he goes with you.”

Goldings adds, “Jack is such an open-minded musician. I think the way that he looks at it is that as long as everybody’s communicating and listening, everything is okay, even if something breaks down by accident. If you commit to the accident and make it into something, it’s fine. I came into [the trio project] pretty nervous, in a way, as to whether I was going to be able to rise to the occasion and know how to play with Jack, but he made me feel really comfortable immediately, because he’s very open. He likes talking about the music a lot, actually, which is nice, although the mystery starts when we start playing.” Despite having now completed many shows with DeJohnette, some of the mystery remains for Goldings: “I find that I need to listen to records of him playing if I haven’t been playing with him in a while, just to sort of get it in my head.”
Like most of today’s improvising musicians, DeJohnette, Scofield and Goldings have many projects. Trio Beyond, who reconvened for isolated dates in France and California at the end of May 2006, will tour Europe throughout July, after which DeJohnette will connect with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock for a few further gigs with their celebrated Standards Trio. Asked if going from one trio to the other will be a challenge, DeJohnette laughs quietly and replies, “Not really. It’s all creative. The only thing that’ll shift is dynamics. I play much lighter with Keith, but the intensity is still there.” DeJohnette has a few other trios on his 2006 agenda, as well: A recent date with the surprising combination of Bruce Hornsby and Christian McBride awaits release, while in the fall, DeJohnette, Bill Frisell and Jerome Harris will tour in support of The Elephant Sleeps But Still Remembers, one of a set of ambient releases on DeJohnette’s new Golden Beams label.

For his part, Scofield recently completed a series of shows in support of another tribute project, honoring the late great Ray Charles, while a live recording at the Warfield with Phil Lesh and Friends was a few weeks in the future when we spoke. He also has plans to collaborate with Norwegian keyboardist Bugge Wesseltoft: “It’s a sort of Euro-House kind of jazz, very electronic but also very improvised.” Goldings’s primary musical activity for 2006, a series of tours with James Taylor, is perhaps the furthest removed of all from Trio Beyond. Like Scofield and DeJohnette, he also has other trios. His first working group, with drummer Bill Stewart and guitarist Peter Bernstein, remains together, though he admits the group is “not as active as I’d like it to be.” Reflecting his younger age, he also has a hand in projects being marketed without the assistance of labels—a trio with Stewart and guitarist Kevin Hays is on CDBaby, while an electronica collaboration with Chad Fischer under the name Goldfisch Music has a Myspace page.
Goldings sounds the one concerned note regarding Trio Beyond: “We tried to get a real American tour going, and we were all so disappointed with the fact that it was cancelled because of lack of interest amongst some of the bigger venues that Jack wanted to play. It’s kind of a rude awakening to the state of things in the United States as compared to Europe. You’d think that with two of the biggest names and influential musicians in jazz, it would be a no-brainer to put together a decent U.S. tour, but it’s not easy.”

Time will tell whether Trio Beyond adds to its discography and evolves further beyond its Lifetime roots or leaves Saudades as an isolated recording of three musicians energized by the example of three earlier musicians. Even if it remains Trio Beyond’s only offering, though, Saudades will stand as proof that hard-driving, electrified jazz was as alive in 2004 as it was in 1969.

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