Guitarist John Scofield comes across as a somewhat restless spirit, on record, at least, each project different from the last. Piety Street (2009) featured gospel and New Orleans music, whilst 54, released the following year, saw him collaborate with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra. Since then, he has recorded an album of straight-ahead jazz (A Moment’s Peace – 2011), returned to his groove-driven Überjam project (Überjam Deux – 2013) and reunited with jazz-funk band Medeski, Martin & Wood for two albums, Live (2011) and Juice (2014).
The title of his new album, Past Present, suggests he felt the time was right for a period of reflection about the past. This may well have had something to do with the tragic passing of his son, Evan, in 2013. Indeed, a couple of the song titles on the new record make reference to his son’s illness. But it seems the time was also right for a period of musical reflection, as Scofield has chosen to reunite his quartet with Joe Lovano, who recorded three classic albums for Blue Note in the early 1990s. Bill Stewart returns on drums, and Larry Grenadier stands in for the late Dennis Irwin.
When the original quartet formed, it seemed to be in reaction to the numerous fusion-oriented albums he had recorded in the 1980s – a deliberate return to a more acoustic sound. Whether Scofield has a similar plan in mind, or simply wanted to reunite with old friends, remains to be seen. But it’s wonderful to hear him reunited with Lovano, in particular, and interesting to hear how their playing has evolved in the intervening years.
Listen to Lovano’s solo on the first track, Slinky, and you’ll notice a warmer, earthier tone to his playing than on those earlier albums. “Lovano has just matured,” Scofield noted in a recent interview, “and gotten these little sonic elements in his playing. For his own part, Scofield is using less sound processing these days, and on this album plays a semi-hollow body guitar through an amp. As a consequence, the quartet has a warm, organic feel on Past Present that’s a delight to listen to.
Scofield seems to have thrown himself into writing for this album, composing all nine tunes. Under the circumstances, one might have expected an air of melancholy, but Past Present seems to reflect a variety of moods and styles. Chap Dance features a playful, hoedown-style refrain, while there’s also a touch of humour in the dancing bass that introduces the title track. Hangover is mellow and soothing, Scofield and Lovano gently massaging the senses, before giving way to a fine solo by Grenadier.
Museum is a particularly memorable tune, and one of the highlights of the album, whilst Season Creep is slower and more reflective. Get Proud is different again, more soul jazz in style, and would not have sounded out of place on one of his Medeski, Martin & Wood collaborations.
Past Present also sees the guitarist signing to the newly revived Impulse! label, which has put out some fine recordings over the last couple of years. Scofield attributes its success to the presence of Jean-Philippe Allard, who has an impressive track record working with some major jazz artists, but also notes the decline of Blue Note in recent years, and Verve’s focus on singers these days, rather than instrumental jazz. It feels like a natural home for Scofield, who may be revisiting the past, but has made an album that’s very much grounded in the present. Highly recommended.