Monday, August 17, 2009

Review of Piety Street by John Scofield

I have been a John Scofield fan since I pulled a stint of community service in high school for setting fire to a trash can in front of the local mall. (completely by accident, I promise!) But the good news is that I was able to serve my few hours of community service by helping out building sets at the local community theater where the head carpenter turned me on to John Scofield. I must have only been about fourteen or fifteen at the time and didn’t have a huge appreciation for Jazz music, but there was something pretty cool about Scofield even then to my unrefined teenage ears.

So I have followed Scofield these last 22 years through all sorts of turns in his musical journey from fusion to classic jazz to groovy sixties soul jazz to his more recent explorations of electronic music. I have to say that though there have been some albums from Scofield over the years that stuck out to me as amazing such as his collaboration with Medeski, Martin, and Wood on A Go Go or even more recently his very modern / techno-twinged Uberjam, but wherever he goes on his musical journey, I usually find Scofield’s work very good.

I recently came across Scofield’s latest album Piety Street that marks yet another turn in his exploration of styles and genres. I admit that I found the concept of this new album very exciting—old gospel songs played with a band made up predominately of funky New Orleans musicians, recorded in one of New Orleans’ premier studios and fronted by Scofield. Well, after a few days of listening to Piety Street I am not in the least disappointed.

On Piety Street Scofield and company connect Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and R&B effortlessly and naturally. The line-up is simple with iconic New Orleans bass player George Porter and drummer Ricky Fataar as the rhythm section and Jon Cleary on keys and vocals and John Scofield on guitar. The simplicity of this four-piece approach to gospel give the songs an understated quality that seems so lost in modern Gospel and R&B music but which allows plenty of room for the songs to move and groove, which they do quite well.

While Scofield’s playing is great as usual the one who really shines for me on this record is John Cleary. His vocals are just, well right—soulful without being piercing, gritty without being grimy and his keyboard playing whether organs or piano provide the perfect backing to allow Scofield’s guitar to sing.

There is something about the understanding of roots music by New Orleans musicians that just works with these old gospel songs. Listening to these songs is like hearing them the way they were meant to be played and then realizing that you have never quite heard gospel songs played like this with a touch of New Orleans Backbeat Funk, Delta Blues, Old Spirituals, a sprinkle of Country Blues, and topping it off with a generous helping Jazz guitar. Anyone else could have made an absolute train wreck of this idea but Scofield, Cleary, Porter, and Fataar (with speacial guests John Boutte and Shannon Powell) have done something really worthwhile here. I hope this is not their last collaboration because I find myself wanting more already.

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