For the past quarter-century, jazz guitar in America has been dominated by Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield, three hugely gifted players who've all sought in their own individual ways to fuse jazz with other musical idioms. Scofield, for instance, has recorded a series of studio albums that place his fuzz-flavored, harmonically oblique playing in contexts ranging from the funky jam-band sound of "A Go Go" (accompanied by Medeski, Martin & Wood) to the soft-edged chamber ensemble heard on "Quiet" (which teamed him with Wayne Shorter and a seven-piece horn section). All have been interesting and some brilliant, but one thing was missing: the lengthy, spur-of-the-moment solos known in jazz as "blowing." Now comes "EnRoute," a live album on which Scofield blows -- with a vengeance.
Recorded in December at New York's Blue Note club, "EnRoute" teams Scofield with two old friends, electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. It's his first live trio album in 20-odd years, and the band takes full advantage of the opportunity to stretch out. (The longest of the nine tracks runs just over 11 minutes.) They even kick things off with a bebop classic, Denzil Best's "Wee," on which Scofield sounds like a racehorse who's been waiting all morning for the gate to open. The way he tears into "Wee" will put you in mind of a remark he makes in his no-nonsense liner notes: "The music on this CD was recorded live and I think that's the way jazz is played and heard best. Somehow, we rarely get to these places in the studio."
Yet "EnRoute" is anything but another aimless jam session. As usual, the guitarist has written most of the tunes, and their unexpected, strongly personal twists and turns are the road map that gives "EnRoute" a clearly defined sense of musical direction. I especially liked "Hammock Soliloquy," which starts off with a countryish two-beat lope, then shifts gears into a fast jazz waltz. It's one of those deceptively simple-sounding Scofield compositions that sticks in your ear and won't let go.
In addition to six Scofield originals, "Wee" and Swallow's "Name That Tune," "EnRoute" includes a standard, "Alfie," and it might just be the most memorable cut of all. You may think you've heard "Alfie" a couple of thousand times too many, but you'll change your mind as soon as you hear Scofield coolly laying down Burt Bacharach's familiar melody, slipping in off-center chords that glint like half-seen stars in a cloudy night sky.
I've long been impressed by the unflagging resourcefulness with which John Scofield puts together fresh settings for his superlative playing. Maybe that's the best way to think of "EnRoute," not as a return to his improvisational roots but as simply another facet of his complex creativity. No matter how you interpret it, "EnRoute" is a wonderful album, rich in memorable solos and full of the electrifying energy only to be heard from a great band in a good club on the right night.