If John Scofield had retired 20 years ago, he would have left a permanent mark on jazz music. At that point in his career, he had already released numerous albums as a bandleader and collaborated with some of jazz’s finest musicians such as Miles Davis and Jaco Pastorius. Luckily, if his recorded output since then is any indication, Scofield is not a musician who is content with resting on his laurels or repeating the past.
His latest release, Uberjam Deux, is his third to feature the Uberjam Band, a lineup of talented musicians who help Scofield stretch his jazz roots into a mixture of funk, fusion, soul, reggae, and dance grooves. It has been ten years since Up All Night, the last Uberjam Band album, and since then Scofield has stayed busy with many other projects including a Ray Charles tribute, an album of all ballads, and live and studio collaborations with Medeski, Martin, and Wood.
His work with MMW certainly touched on the jazz-funk sound present on Uberjam Deux, but where that band would explore the limits of dissonant, avant-garde insanity, the Uberjam Band rides tight, in-the-pocket grooves. The opening track, “Camelus”, is a great example of this. Drummer Adam Deitch provides a rock solid backbone while bassist Andy Hess and rhythm Avi Bortnik dance around each other on a Meters style riff. The resulting rhythmic bed provides Scofield a lush foundation to weave his laid-back lines over.
Other tracks seem similarly influenced by older funk and soul music. “Al Green Song” is exactly what it sounds like: a vintage soul groove with Scofield and guest John Medeski on organ providing beautiful melodic playing. “Scotown” and “Curtis Knew” both feature jazzy progressions over top of infectious beats, and “Just Don’t Want to Be Lonely” is an uplifting number that recalls George Benson.
Parts of the record feature a much more modern approach, which has been a trademark of the Uberjam Band since their first album in 2002. “Cracked Ice” features Bortnik’s funk guitar riding on top of a mixture of real and electronic drums. The middle of the tune even drops into a dance breakdown with Bortnik’s providing effect-modulated arpeggios. His sampling work, along with Louis Cato’s drums, gives an almost electronica feel to “Torero”.
“Endless Summer” is perhaps the most ambitious track on the album. Beginning with another electronic groove that leads to a thumping bass line from Hess, the song soon gives way to an almost traditional jazz progression over which Scofield takes an inspired solo. About two-thirds of the way through, the band completely shifts gears as everyone drops out for a synth and drum breakdown.
Each musician’s contributions are felt throughout the twelve tracks, but Scofield is clearly at the forefront. His incredibly strong playing serves as the voice of the music. He is one of those rare musicians whose playing transcends technique; instead of relying on typical riffs and licks, he bends, squeezes and contorts notes with absolute command of his instrument. He rarely feels the need to show off or be flashy. Instead, he favors melodic, vocal lines with an impeccable sense of timing. Guitar nerds will also notice him expanding his tonal palette with the use of Fender guitars on a few tracks, an interesting deviation from his classic Ibanez semi-hollow body sound.
Instrumental albums can be cumbersome for casual listeners. For the most part, Uberjam Deux flows well. Scofield and his band keep everything fresh and don’t let parts drag too much, except in a few cases. The reggae jam “Dub Dub” overstays its welcome after a few minutes, and other tracks could probably have been trimmed a bit to keep things tight. Overall though, inspired performances from the entire lineup of musicians keep the album from ever feeling like background music.
It is always refreshing and encouraging to see a seasoned, successful artist willing to evolve and move forward. John Scofield has proven himself to be one such musician with an ever-shifting, chameleon like approach to his art. Uberjam Deux has something to offer to everyone from jazz purists to festival kids, and is a worthy addition to his impressive catalog of work.
Written by Wib Schneider
OurVinyl | Contributor