Pop goes the 'Sco'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2007, 12:00am

Long-haul flights are rarely enjoyable, but Cathay Pacific's excellent jazz programme on the inflight entertainment audio service can dissolve some of the drudgery.

Host Alyn Shipton does a fine job of finding just the right mix of edgey and popular. And on a recent flight from Rome, I plugged in to the show in the middle of a Miles Davis track I hadn't heard before.

There's nothing remarkable in that: Davis was extensively recorded. Sadly, greedy record companies have seen to it that just about every note he ever committed to tape has been released, and rightly or wrongly much music he certainly never intended to put out is now available on multiple CDs bundled together in expensive boxed sets.

I have a few of those, including some which I would not want to be without, but I passed on the collection of Davis' performances at the Montreux jazz festival, suspecting that most of them - being from one of the least interesting phases of his career - would gather dust on the shelf.

Shipton, however, had singled out from that compilation a track, Speak, with a blistering guitar solo from John Scofield which reminded me that whatever else you might say about the Dark Magus' music from the early 1980s, he certainly hadn't lost his ear for good guitarists. I may just relent on that Montreux boxed set, but while mulling it over I'm listening to some new Scofield on his latest CD This Meets That.

Scofield, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, or a combination of all three, are the role models for the upcoming generation of jazz guitarists who draw on other areas of popular music as well as the tradition established by Charlie Christian from which many mainstream players still scarcely diverge. 'Sco' is in some respects the odd one out. Metheny can make lushly melodic music sometimes dismissed as pop, but can also dive deeply into discordance and is entirely at home with the music of resolutely uncommercial improvisers such as Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey.

Frisell is capable of edgy, virtuosic playing, but has settled into a sort of pastoral Americana groove, and is preoccupied now more with texture than technique.

Scofield shares their originality but lacks their populist touch, and seems to be trying to find a more accessible furrow to plough. He still feels the need to fire off occasional bursts of aggressively jagged guitar - Duke Ellington once asked whether a player's sound came into the ear like honey or ground glass and Scofield often fits into the second category - but increasingly he has come home to the blues, as his Ray Charles tribute album, performed at the 2006 Hong Kong Arts Festival, made plain.

Here he is in that sort of territory again, and is acknowledging his rock'n'roll roots. Like almost every electric guitar player of his generation Scofield started out in rock bands and here he revisits, with the jazzy sophistication of a mature musician, a couple of tunes he almost certainly first banged out as a teenager in somebody's garage - the Rolling Stones' I Can't Get No Satisfaction and The House of the Rising Sun.

Rising Sun is of course an American folk tune, but it crossed the Atlantic, and when Alan Price in Newcastle heard Bob Dylan's appropriation of Dave Van Ronk's arrangement of the song he rearranged it as a rock number for the Animals. The 'British invasion' repatriated it, drastically altered. Frisell helps out on that one on tremolo guitar.

Scofield essays Frisell's country territory with Behind Closed Doors, a major hit for Charlie Rich, who probably would have derived an amused satisfaction from the cover. Rich, best known for 'countrypolitan' singles such as The Most Beautiful Girl, was a frustrated jazz pianist who found himself trapped by his own success singing country.

The other tunes are all Scofield's. He is teamed here with the stellar rhythm section of Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart.

It's a good album. Again like Frisell and Metheny, Scofield just doesn't play below a certain level, but there was perhaps more fire in his belly on that Montreux performance with Davis which gave me such a lift in the air.