Music » Music Etc.

Music Genius finds company


John Scofield’s tribute to Ray Charles represents the best example of the form

Tribute albums are tricky. At worst, they can be an insincere attempt to cash in on another’s achievements: a mish-mash of opportunistic egos imposing their own voices on someone else’s artistic statement, or a collection of gimmicky musical devices that do nothing to improve the original material (Billie Holiday’s “All of Me” as a reggae? Maybe, maybe not.).

At best, they can be an honest reflection of root influences, a fresh look at the familiar, a genuflection to those who shaped the music that shaped us, and an opportunity to share in their spirit.

That’s What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles is the best kind of tribute album, a collection created by mature artists whose collective roots run deep into The Genius’ garden of blues/jazz/soul/gospel delights. This is the sincere celebration of a congregation of accomplished musicians rejoicing at the Church of Brother Ray, and it’s as much fun to listen to as it reportedly was to record.

John Scofield: exploratory and unpredictable, but unmistakably jazz.

Of course, it helps to have great material. Part of Charles’ genius was his unerring ability to choose catchy, well-crafted songs with strong melodies and memorable lyrics. In the hands of drummer-producer Steve Jordan, guitarist-arranger Scofield, soloists David “Fathead” Newman, Mavis Staples, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, and a rhythm section that grooves like a well-oiled, heavy-duty washing machine, these tunes rollick and swing successfully through yet another incarnation.

Growing up in suburban Connecticut, Scofield honed his chops on rock, blues, and R&B before discovering jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino, and quickly became part of the Boston scene while attending the Berklee College of Music in the early days of jazz-rock fusion. A concert with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker and a two-year stint with the Billy Cobham-George Duke band followed.

His career took off in the early 1980s when he toured with Miles Davis, playing on Star People and Decoy. He subsequently appeared on projects helmed by artists ranging from John Abercrombie to Loudon Wainwright III to Herbie Hancock. Regularly recording as a leader and composer since the late ’70s, his own music may best be described as genre-bending fusion: original, exploratory, unpredictable, but always well-played, well-crafted, and unmistakably jazz.

“What’d I Say’ is one of the first tunes I learned to rock ’em with at the Seventh Grade Dance circa 1965,” Scofield reveals on his website. So when Verve CEO Ron Goldstein suggested the tribute project, he quickly overcame his initial hesitation, despite the logistical challenges involved in gathering a large cast of characters to record in New York City the week before Christmas. Scofield credits producer Steve Jordan with keeping things running smoothly: “It never got away from a relaxed and natural, friendly vibe. There was never a time when it wasn’t fun.”

On the title cut, reworked as a salsa (because, Scofield points out, “Ray’s original hinted at that”), guest vocalists trade choruses on lyrics never meant to be taken too seriously. (Neville’s tender, angelic tenor exhorting baby to “shake that thang” is priceless.)

The Carver/Trinity Jazz Collaborative presents:
John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles

Sat, Oct 8

Laurie Auditorium
715 Stadium Drive

“Cryin’ Time” functions here as a mournful elegy to Charles, bringing to mind the popular memorial hymn “Going Home,” with Larry Goldings’ Hammond B3 taking on the role of a bagpipe drone behind Scofield’s softly crying guitar. The song immediately segues into “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” with Staples providing a smokier, grittier, more world-weary version of Mahalia Jackson at a church funeral. As a result, the lyrics about lost love suddenly take on a deeper meaning, shattering the divide between sacred and secular.

“Hit the Road Jack” gets a straight-ahead jazz treatment, with a hip re-harmonization and a well-endowed, swinging horn section sitting in for background vocals. An all-too-brief interlude of horn cacophony is reminiscent of Charles Mingus, with whom Scofield recorded early in his career.

In the second month of a breakneck tour of one-nighters, Scofield brings to Laurie Auditorium a group that includes bassist John Benitez (Eddie Palmieri, Wynton Marsalis), keyboardist Gary Versace (Maria Schneider, John Abercrombie), and drummer Steve Hass (Thalia, Roy Hargrove). Meyer Statham, fresh from Boston’s wedding band circuit, does vocal honors. The concert benefits Trinity’s Growing Jazz in San Antonio initiative.

The Charles tribute project has enabled Scofield to achieve that elusive balance between tradition and innovation. Jordan’s mixes capture the true-to-genre live room sound, and many tunes were first takes, encapsulating magical moments when spontaneity fused with relaxed confidence. The solos on the album are the height of soulfulness, and grooves sink deep into the pocket. Along with sincere respect and affection, everyone brings something unique to this party.

“I see him as the height of honest expression,” Scofield says of Charles. Much the same could be said for Scofield and his collaborators.

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