Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13: John Scofield, "Hottentot"

Artist: John Scofield
Song: "Hottentot"
Album: A Go Go
Year: 1998

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In what is either an attempt to do away with the genre, or little more than intellectual laziness, it seems like every few months, some music magazine that claims knowledge and integrity attempts to put forth the idea that "jazz is dead."  While the genre certainly does not have the mainstream appeal that it did half-a-century ago, one would be remiss to buy into such baseless statements, as jazz music is unquestionably alive and well.  In fact, is has been over the past decade or two that some of the most unique and inventive jazz has appeared, and among the giants of the "modern jazz" scene is a player who has been recording as a solo artist since the late 1970's.  Having recorded with many jazz greats, including Charles Mingus and Miles Davis, few performers within the current jazz scene can boast as illustrious, long-lasting, and groundbreaking a career as jazz-guitar icon, John Scofield.  As one of an elite group of musicians who seem to get better and more musically imaginative as the years pass, during the late 1990's, Scofield managed to find himself in a studio with the amazing trio of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and the resulting record, 1998's A Go Go, stands as one of the high-points of the past few decades of jazz recordings.  The quartet explore nearly every emotion possible, and their raw talent is at times nothing short of stunning, making each song a uniquely superb musical experience.  From dark, deep, almost haunting moods to some of the brightest, upbeat grooves, A Go Go is nothing short of musical perfection, and the full scale of the power of the quartet can be heard on John Scofield's 1998 composition, "Hottentot."

The quartet move through the arrangement with stunning precision, and it quickly becomes clear that Medeski, Martin, and Wood are not a "backing band" on this record, but full contributors to the overall musical picture.  While the quartet foudn here would go on to record other albums together, one can easily make the case that it is the songs on A Go Go that remain their finest work.  As "Hottentot" opens, the first of a handful of moods is instantly deployed, as organ player John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin begin a simple, tight, and amazingly "cool" riff.  It is within this opening phrasing that the groove that carries through the entire song is also introduced, and the quick addition of the bass of Chris Wood gives the song a unique feel for both the A Go Go record, as well as the overall jazz genre.  It is this ability to quickly and effectively deploy multiple moods that has made the trio of Medeski, Martin, and Wood famous in their own right, and their teaming with John Scofield has proved to be one of the most fantastic groupings in music history.  While all three members of Medeski, Martin, and Wood are in top form on "Hottentot," it is Medeski who soars highest, as his light touches and fills behind Scofield's guitar stand as some of the funkiest, and most subtlety brilliant fills and progressions ever recorded.  Bringing the sound and energy that makes their own albums fantastic, one would be hard pressed to find a better backing band than the work of Medeski, Martin, and Wood throughout A Go Go.

Though he is being backed by some of the most talented musicians of their generation, there is never a moment on "Hottentot" when the focus really moves from the stunning guitar performance of John Scofield himself.  Working all over the fret board, and within many different rhythmic patterns, it is songs like "Hottentot" that cement Scofield's name as one of the most innovative and talented guitarists in history.  Yet on "Hottentot," one can detect a difference within Scofield's playing that truly makes it different from a vast majority of other jazz recordings: fun.  Throughout the song, there is a sense of upbeat happiness, and not only the order in which the notes are being played, but the mood which they create stand as one of the brightest and almost euphoric jazz recordings ever.  Scofield's guitar seems to almost bounce off of the track, creating an amazing sense of depth and movement on "Hottentot," and yet he never loses sight of the main musical phrasing from which he is working.  The long solo progressions, as well as the quick fills he drops stand as some of the finest work of his long career, and the fact that the groove persists in the manner that it does, as well as the overall feel, give "Hottentot" a strangely modern sound.  It is Scofield's ability to take the "classic" sound and style of jazz guitar and spin it into a more contemporary sound that makes him such a musical icon, and the perfect with which he achieves this ideal can be found in its clearest form on "Hottentot."

It is nothing short of a massive understatement to say that the teaming of John Scofield with Medeski, Martin, and Wood is a "super-group" it it's most obvious form.  Though such a term is normally used for more rock-based acts, this quartet represent the most talented and imaginative jazz players of their generation, and the resulting albums that they have created together stand as some of the greatest in music history.  While in most cases, the players that are not the person who gets credit for the album tend to stay in the background, but the fact that John Scofield has no problem completely sharing he spotlight with the other three not only proves his confidence as a musician, but also allows each song on A Go Go to be fully realized in every possible way.  With all four musicians playing in top form, each song on the record has its own, uniquely brilliant tone, and yet songs like "Hottentot" still manage to stand out in the company of some of the most creative and perfectly executed arrangements ever committed to tape.  It is this interplay between the four members that epitomizes the idea of the group being greater than the sum of its parts, and in an era of seemingly selfish musicians, it is records like this that once again cement the endless possibilities when a true group effort is employed.  Kicking off what has gone on to become one of the most exciting jazz partnerships in history, Medeski, Martin, and Wood's role as "backing band" for John Scofield continues to yeild some of the greatest jazz ever recorded, and their amazing chemistry can be found within Scofield's 1998 arrangement, "Hottentot."

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