John Scofield has gone in many different directions during the course of his storied fifty-year-plus career, but one route he’s never taken is the one leading to the recording of a true solo guitar album. But his second outing for ECM Records is the optimum opportunity for such a trek, if for no other reason than on his 2020 debut for the label, Swallow Tales, he may have deferred a bit too much (though perhaps understandably) to bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, two of his most long-standing collaborators. This rightfully self-titled LP, however, is where Sco makes up for that arguably subservient role, vigorously exercising his well-honed technique as means to demonstrate healthy reverence for the material he’s so carefully chosen.
These baker’s dozen selections run the gamut of the eclecticism Scofield has displayed in leading his own projects and in collaborating with others over the years. Interpreting songs by Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”), Keith Jarrett (“Coral”), and Hank Williams (“You Win Again”), John demonstrates the uncommon dexterity whereby he can evoke, in turn, the sensations of revelry, dignity, and humility. Remarkably too, these covers not only remain of a piece with each other, but also with the guitarist’s own compositions such as “Trance Du Hour” and “Elder Dance;” with tracks ranging in duration from less than three minutes to almost six, Scofield never makes the mistake of belaboring his points.
On the contrary, he hits the sweet harmonics at the close of “Junco Partner” with the utmost ease, then lets the notes ring in the air. Not surprisingly, that uniquely deft touch on the fretboard—at the very sweet spot of blues staccato and jazz fluidity—comes to the fore prominently on his originals as well. Scofield has developed his personal style of guitar as much by working with the esteemed likes of Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, and Phil Lesh as by leading his own groups like the Uberjam Band, so it’s no coincidence his instrumental means of expression of emotion is honest and forthright, even without any words aside from song titles on, for instance, “Honest I Do” and “Mrs. Scofield’s Waltz.”
Then there are the familiar likes of “Danny Boy,” a bonafide standard that sounds utterly fresh tendered through Scofield’s pliant fingerwork. As he picks and strums so distinctively, there arises a quietude that places this record squarely in the ECM oeuvre that producer Manfred Eicher established over a half-century ago, an atmosphere that prevails even at those times the venerable guitarist utilizes looping: recording and mastering by Tyler Semiarid and Christoph Stickel, respectively, reveals the delicate layers of sound that create the illusion the man’s accompanying himself.
While that approach seems a natural progression in Scofield’s evolution as an instrumentalist, composer, and recording artist, the ease with which the man plays never subsides. John doesn’t reach for his music any longer but instead lets it come to him, so the deceptively casual air that informs tracks like “Honest I Do,” mirroring the inviting tranquility of the album cover graphics, is exactly the quality that renders this record so accessible.