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Published: 2003/04/30
by Dan Alford

John Scofield Band, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, MA- 4/25

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is situated in a large, old mill complex- a group of interconnected buildings bordered to the east by a fast moving channel of water. The walk way to the entrance passes a set of four living trees hung upside down about thirty feet in the air, and like a middle school science experiment, they've begun to grow toward the sun- a path that will eventually lead them past their own root systems. Just beyond that, through a series of windows, are visible a number of sleeping bags hovering at various heights, some with long hair streaming out. Each is attached at a large gas tank (nitrous tank?) and at the end of the room there is a brightly lit freezer filled with Cherry Garcia ice cream.

Sco and crew performed as the climax to a small jazz festival in northern Massachusetts, and the cutting edge museum seemed the ideal setting for his particular brand of mind bending experimentation. The crowd was comprised of everyone from older, well dressed locals to Williams College kids to a couple of ratty New Yorkers in search of a cool venue and some crazy bee-bop, all gathered together in a large, high-ceiling room- like what you think a television studio must be like, only television studios aren’t that big. Most of the older crowd settled in the terraced seats at that back of the performance area, while those in the know crowded around the stage. When the band came out, Scofield leaned away from the mic and commented to the rail rats, "It’s us and them, huh?"

Although the band has recently recorded a new album due out in May, most of the show included material from Uberjam, the poorly titled, Grammy nominated (although whether or not that’s a good thing is debatable) techno-dance-fusion joint, including the opening Acidhead, with its long, atmospheric introduction and bursts of incredible rhythm guitar from Avi Bortnick. Avi also works the samples on a Mac lap top, and it’s fair to say that he does more bold and innovative sample work than just about anyone else on the jam scene, including Sector 9 and Project Logic. His samples serve not only as special effects or loops, but as entire sound beds on which the band can build its strange, angular sonic sculptures. He’s even brought Scofield himself into the fold, and at many points throughout the night the master guitarist hunched over his pedal spread toying with vocal cuts and impromptu tidbits of his own playing.

Acidhead segued easily into Snap Crackle, where Sco unleashed the first of many, many self-professed "hot-dog" solos. Within the tune, each solo would revert to Avi’s vicious, precise rhythm, under which bassist Andy Hess would rise, leading the way, in turn, back to Sco. Although Andy has been the bassist for less than a year, he is a perfect match for the band. There is a real synergy between Scofield, Avi and Adam Deitch, an unspoken communication, and Andy seems able to tap right in. He has the ability to dig into a groove, dig deep into it, but also to play fluid, imaginative lines, making him uniquely suited to the band’s style and repertoire. Snap Crackle also included a wild section near the end, where the sounds grew hectic and swirled about, revealing the individual layers of the movement, and sucking each back into the shifting currents.

The first pairing was followed by another of equal caliber, Animal Farm > Jungle Fiction. The former had some cool boogaloo drumming, simple, but sweet, and a bass line to match. As the tune picked up steam, it fell into a set of drum solos, the last one stretching out as Deitch toyed with patterns and variations. At the last moment, the band launched into Jungle Fiction, taking flight and soaring along the narrow river way. This tune, an older one although it was only released on Uberjam, is a bit like a 73 Playing, or YEM, in that it best defines the band and its capabilities. Beyond that, it’s my favorite. The early up-the waterfall scramble fell into two short sections, the second characterized by longer strides and more intense vistas, and led to another break beat passage from Deitch. But cosmic samples began to creep in, encroaching on the beat. With a quick shift and the addition of Andy, the quartet was suddenly in a super-dirty sex groove that dragged! out, long and lush, to end to suite. It was all happenin’.

The end of the set was comprised of newer material, or rather material from the new album, as the first was a cover of The Dramatics’ What You See Is What You Get. It was surprisingly clean all the way round, similar to some of the material Sco played with Uri Cane and the Sex Mob back in December at Ropeadope’s New Music Seminar in NYC. The second joint was even chiller, leading into Ticatali, a lengthy Afro-Cuban exploration with an excellent mid-tune freak-out.

It’s noteworthy that the newer material had little in the way of samples and effects, and was, in general, laid back. This includes the second set opener, which had Sco running relatively clean lines and included a mellow melt down, Sco bent down at the pedals once again. Watch Out For Po Po bucks the trend, however, with its heavy beats and audience participation. This version climaxed with a twisted mutation of Scofield’s warbling, backward notes. As his solo matured, the band grew too, and eventually was beyond itself, shredding through a Led Zeppelin-style rock jam much to everyones amazement and accolades- a unique version in my experience.

The following Hottentot was equally groundbreaking, although in diametrically opposed way. The old soul groove number had very little in the way of funk. Rather, it was broad and, well, psychedelic, although that word doesn’t generally match up with Scofield’s material or performances. The body of the song was textural with landscapes described by colors rather than shapes. It was bizarre and wonderful and a real treat for the hardcore fans in attendance. The tune ended with John all alone working the theme over and over, shredding more wildly with each new approach- a treat for everyone attendance.

The rest of the set included Polo Towers, I Brake for Monster Booty (which, mercifully, did not include Deitch’s hokey rap) > Uberjam. The closer featured an immense vamp in the first part and the last of many moments where Scofield and Deitch were left to jam alone. They understand each other so well, can converse so well, such moments are almost always golden. That jamlet unleashed Avi’s charge into the second half of the song, and as the whole band joined, Andy’s bass rig was visibly shaking on stage. They shook the floor, maybe the foundation. They rampaged, a tribe of titans devastating the horizon.

It was a bit of a gamble- a four hour ride to a Scofield gig at a museum. It seemed like right the elements were in place, but it could’ve gone either way- it could have been a stodgy crowd that found the twisted sounds incomprehensible, or it could have been filled with drunk, chatty college kids. As it was, it turned out to be a good night for alchemy- those who couldn’t handle the music milled around near a bar in some remote corner of another room, and the college folks proved themselves to be great fans and great listeners- and the band proved that it is still one of the premier sources of sound for serious music fiends.

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