Twenty-some years ago, I challenged myself to broaden my musical horizons by exposing myself to music that was new to me and quite different from that which I had become used to listening to.
My acceptance of that challenge was, quite literally, responsible for everything musical that has happened to me since, including this blog and the eight and a half years I was privileged to spend as the host of a popular jazz radio program.
I have told that story elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here, other than to say that today’s album probably fits in there well. Although I have been listening to jazz since the early 1990’s, my personal music collection, until a few weeks ago, contained only two John Scofield albums: “A Go Go” (1998), and a live album called “EnRoute” (2004).
Then one day back in October, I was on Amazon, trying to decide on which classic Doctor Who episode to add to my collection (I settled on “The Five Doctors,” in case you are a fellow Whovian), when I happened to glance down at the bottom of the screen, which is where Amazon displays items it is programmed to say you might like.
Among the items listed was the latest album from John Scofield, “Past Present,” his first release on the legendary Impulse label. On a whim, I bought it. Ever since it hit my mailbox a few days later, I have been listening to this disk, trying to develop an overwhelming like or dislike for it. I have probably played it a dozen times, and my feelings are still mixed.
That Scofield is one of the master guitarists of his generation is without a doubt. So I have been a little frustrated at my fence-sitting attitude. Right or wrong, I decided that the only way to work this out is to write about the album and see what happens. I mean, I did shoot my mouth off a couple of weeks ago and promise my next review would be something new. Well, kiddos, this is the only new thing in my collection, so it’s this or nothing. And for the record, no, I do not mean that as damning with faint praise.
The personnel for “Past Present” are mostly familiar to Scofield fans.
John Scofield, guitar
Joe Lovano, tenor sax
Larry Grenadier, double bass
Bill Stewart, drum
The most conspicuous absence for Scofield’s fans will be bassist Dennis Irwin, who died in 2008. Irwin, Lovano and Stewart had been teamed up with Scofield for several years. Luckily for us, Scofield filled Irwin’s shoes with Larry Grenadier, with whom he has worked often for some time.
“Past Present” gives us nine songs, all written by Scofield. The album opens with a seven-minute piece titled “Slinky.” Like most of the rest of the album, “Slinky” is a mellow song, with the warmth of Scofield’s nylon strings contrasting with Stewart’s percussion while Grenadier’s bass fills the background. There is a touch of blues and funk, but mostly “Slinky” is a mellow oddity that I think you will find surprising and relaxing. And that’s a good thing, if you enjoy being relaxed.
Next, Scofield gives us probably the most cheerful song on the album, “Chap Dance.” This one hits the ground running, opening with a dynamic riff from Stewart, who is almost immediately joined by Scofield and the others. Stewart takes a nice (and short) solo, after which Scofield takes the lead. This is a great song with a happy all over feel.
Since I am running out of time (I know, when am I not?), let’s jump ahead to the enigmatically titled “Museum.” This is another bright, happy song that, to me anyway, doesn’t really remind me of a museum. Museums are quiet, stuffy places where things old and dead are on display to pique the interest of people who are, by and large, young and living. Scofield’s song, “Museum,” is neither dead nor stuffy. It is, however, a great song that I think you will enjoy.
“Get Proud” is another bright and lively tune. If I didn’t know better, I’d say this one has its roots in fusion, or a bit of classic rock from the 1960’s. Unlike a lot of examples from both those groups, “Get Proud” is eminently listenable. It also has more than a touch of 50’s-60’s bop for good measure.
The last song I have time to write about tonight is probably the happiest tune on the album, and that would be “Enjoy The Future!” Listening with my headphones, I could occasionally hear someone in the background laughing, a surefire indicator that the band got a kick out of performing this one. I may be wrong, but I do believe you’ll get as big a kick out of listening to it.
So, what’s my decision? I began writing this with one foot in each camp, thumbs down and thumbs up. Which side am I going to come down on?
Thumbs up, obviously! Focusing on the music so I can write about it has brought out all the great and wonderful bits that make this album great. I can unreservedly say to you that I am certain that “Past Present” will make a wonderful addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To find out more about John Scofield and his music, here are some places for you to begin.
The good folks at NPR have a nice page about him here.
JazzTimes also has a nice write-up about him.
Last but definitely not least, allaboutjazz.com has published a short autobiography of Scofield, here.
Thanks for reading this.
Wood Village, Oregon
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