John Scofield Returns with Imaginative & Bold ‘Combo 66’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

John Scofield is one of today’s most versatile guitarists, accumulating accolades and prestigious awards in contemporary jazz, jam band, and popular music. Heck, he’s even made an excellent gospel album. For Combo 66, coinciding with his 66th birthday on September 28 he enlists the support of long-time drummer Bill Stewart, bassist Vincente Archer and pianist/organist Gerald Clayton. Together, in typical Scofield fashion, they imbue jazz with elements from other genres imaginatively and unpredictably.

Scofield is on a creative roll, having won two Grammys for 2016’s Country for Old Men and last year’s stellar effort Hudson with good friends Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, and John Medeski. As you probably know, he often collaborates with Gov’ Mule and with Medeski, Martin, and Wood too. He’ll unexpectedly appear on albums from Americana artists too, such as his guest appearance on multi-instrumentalist Phil Madeira’s Providence. The well-liked and respected Scofield gets and accepts lots of invitations.

These are all Scofield originals. He credits the album title to both his birthday and as he says, “And 66 is the coolest jazz number you can get because if you hit 66 you’re doing ok. Remember all the great records from the 60s? Brasil 66. “Route 66.” It hit me that it would be poetic to use that title.”

One part groove, one part melody, one part improvisation, the interaction amongst the musicians defies the fact that this is the first time this unit has recorded together. Drummer Bill Stewart is the anchor, having been with Scofield since 1992’s What We Do. Upright bassist Vincente Archer is a regular in Robert Glasper’s Trio while the keyboardist Clayton is the son of bassist John Clayton of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. Scofield indicates that is often difficult to match piano and guitar because both instruments are percussive in nature. He admires Clayton for his ability to marry a contemporary approach with the old school touch and feel of Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones.

The opener “Can’t Dance” is a swinging tune, titled by the witty Scofield because “I can’t dance.” “Combo Theme” bears a Henry Mancini kind of soundtrack melody offset by Scofield’s solo which is by turns melodic and dissonant. His “Icons at the Fair” brings in recognizable sounds. It’s purposely reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” on The New Standard, on which Scofield played. His chord structures and progressions for this tune nod to Hancock and Miles.

As he moves into “Willa Jean,” “Uncle Southern” and “Dang Swing” you’ll hear touches of country and blues before “New Waltzo” brings in some blaring rock, especially in the power chords, as Clayton provides a swirling B3 in support. Then, to calm it down, we get the rare Scofield ballad, “I’m Sleepin’ In,” titled, as are most by John’s wife, Susan. This, and the bonus track “Ringing Out” (if you’re lucky enough to get digitally) is the epitome of Clayton’s delicate touch on piano as he softly plays behind Scofield’s lead on the former while soloing on the latter. The closer, “King of Belgium” is dedicated to the iconic jazz harmonica wizard Toots Thielemans, also known to have a great sense of humor, reflected in Scofield’s witty guitar lines.

This is a light, fun, completely accessible outing that will leave you smiling. It fits beautifully with Scofield’s self-described approach that goes like this, “I am so deadly serious about jazz, but the fact of the matter is jazz only works if you are relaxed and don’t give a shit. If you try too hard it doesn’t work. Humor really helps me get to a better place with music.”  Scofield’s place is one that we can enjoy too.

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