Jazz music has fallen by the wayside in modern times, relegated from the quintessential American genre to elevator music.
But musicians like John Scofield are stubborn, and they refuse to let the genre die.
On Thursday, jazz guitarist Scofield performed music from his Grammy-winning album “Country for Old Men” at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz.
Scofield, who won his second and third Grammy awards this year for best jazz instrumental album and best improvised jazz solo, opened his show with renditions of George Jones’ “Mr. Fool” and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Using popular songs was a smart way to ease the audience into his set. He combined familiar country themes with each band members’ individual improvisational style, introducing the audience to the blend of musical styles to come.
“We’re playing all country music tonight,” Scofield said after “The Gambler” ended with a solo that was more abstract jazz than country. “There’s nothing funny about country,” he joked.
Scofield shared the stage with organist Larry Goldings, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Bill Stewart. While Scofield was the headliner and major draw of the concert, Goldings’ performance and improvisation on keys and organ were the highlights of the concert.
While both Goldings and Scofield displayed dexterity and technical skill on their respective instruments, Goldings’ solos sounded imaginative and energetic. Scofield’s attempted to remain upbeat, but it was his second show of the night, and the 65-year-old guitarist often had to sit down while others soloed.
Despite his age and flagging energy, Scofield rocked back and forth with his guitar, with his mouth clenched in concentration. He and his band were considerably dressed down from the audience, wearing untucked button-up shirts while many audience members wore suits and dresses.
Throughout the concert, Scofield’s playing transitioned into the emotional tone of classic rock ballads rather than country or jazz. The songs he played, such as George Jones’ “Just A Girl I Used to Know,” were originally country songs, but his interpretation of the music took on a more rock- and jazz-inspired twist.
Rather than the jangling guitar and folksy rhythms of the country genre, the music played sounded like the piano riff of a fancy restaurant or the heavy and emotional guitar licks of classical ballads.
I went into the concert expecting a country blend, but was disappointed to hear mostly classic rock instead.
This isn’t to say the concert was devoid of any country influence. Many of the songs Scofield played teased at a country style with the guitarist’s lonely, nostalgic riffs, evocative of wide open plains. However the moments were only at the beginnings of the songs to establish the theme.
The addition of an organ, played by Goldings, added an unexpected and out of place Sunday church vibe.
For a country-inspired tour called “Country For Old Men,” Scofield and company should have tailored their improvisations to sound more like country. Instead they seemed to forget all about country and shifted away from it by default.
Much of the appeal in seeing jazz performed live is the energy of the performer and hearing their skills at solo improvisation. If not for the opportunity to hear a Grammy-winning performer play live, there was little in the live performance that the audience could not have gotten from listening to the album.
Each song contained a range of emotions from energetic to calming and each solo drew cheers from the crowd.
Stewart’s drumming was at its best when he played slight variations of musical themes while the others were soloing, which he did on the rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” His solos seemed like disorganized noise, as if he were a new student just testing out each component of his drum kit. Stewart’s skill was much more evident when he provided a base to keep Scofield and Goldings in time.
Archer’s solos were quiet and often repetitive, and his amp broke at the beginning of his solo during the final song, “Wildwood Flower,” preventing him from playing further. While Archer’s performance was not as engaging or energetic as his bandmates, he didn’t have the final opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Scofield and Goldings closed the concert with a duet of “Cryin’ Time,” a song Scofield said they hadn’t played in eight years. Without the rhythm section, the energy of the concert fell; however, the the longer notes of Scofield’s guitar and the punchy interjection of Goldings’ organ blended into a soothing lullaby – a fitting way to end the concert.
Unlike at a pop concert, the musicians were stationary except when Scofield swayed with his guitar or sauntered over to his chair. But stage production wasn’t the point of the show – the music was the focus.
Jazz may not be as popular as it once was, but Scofield proves it’s far from dead – although it doesn’t mix well with country. Despite the occasional drop in energy and diversion from the advertised country mix, Scofield provided a complicated and entertaining reimagining of classic American music.