REVIEW: John Scofield A Moment's Peace

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Tuesday September 27, 2011

from The New York Times

John Scofield A Moment’s Peace (Emarcy) and Bill Frisell’s All We Are Saying (Savoy)
By Nate Chinen

Bill Frisell and John Scofield have been pre-eminent jazz guitarists for roughly the same amount of time, each earning his reputation with an unmistakable sound, an identifiable style and a succession of fine working bands. They share a flexible grasp of the jazz tradition, informed by the pop influences of their age group. (Both were born in 1951.) They often worked together in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but their careers have since run along parallel tracks, intersecting rarely.

By coincidence they both have characteristic new albums releasing on Tuesday and reaching for some of the same ideals. ‘All We Are Saying …’ is Mr. Frisell’s countrified tribute to the songs of John Lennon, made with regular partners. ‘A Moment’s Peace’ is an all-ballads effort by Mr. Scofield, with an ace rhythm section. Both albums can feel a little drowsy, giving off a soft glow of middle-aged good taste. But to stop there, in either case, would be to overlook a great deal of sensitivity and artful restraint.

Mr. Frisell’s album represents a labor of love as well as a crossover attempt: this music makes up a substantial part of his DNA. He’s working with the violinist Jenny Scheinman, the steel guitarist Greg Leisz, the bassist Tony Scherr and the drummer Kenny Wollesen ‘” musicians who have formed the core of his stable in recent years ‘” as well as Lee Townsend, his longtime producer. The arrangements don’t stray far from the source material. Radical reinvention doesn’t seem to be the aim.

Which is one reason it might be easy to underestimate ‘All We Are Saying …’ Another reason: It begins with a cache of Lennon’s more familiar songs ‘” ‘Across the Universe,’ ‘Revolution,’ ‘Nowhere Man,’ Imagine’ ‘” treated with too much cautious respect.

The album’s superior stretch takes up what would be Side B of the LP, with a beautifully lilting ‘Julia,’ a starkly tender ‘Woman,’ a terse, slow-drag ‘Mother.’ Some of the band’s most soulful playing comes on ‘Beautiful Boy,’ as Mr. Frisell and Ms. Scheinman harmonize the melody over a slippery but emphatic groove by Mr. Wollesen and Mr. Scherr. And things get powerfully ethereal on the closing track, ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ which gave the album its title phrase and, one suspects, its implicit agenda.

As it happens, there’s a Beatles tune on ‘A Moment’s Peace,’ but it’s one by Paul McCartney: ‘I Will,’ recast in a simmering gospel mode. There’s no repertory angle on this toned-down album, nearly half of which consists of original songs with titles like ‘Simply Put’ and ‘Plain Song.’ Mr. Scofield, who has trafficked recently in an assertive groove, almost seems to be setting reminders for himself.

The presence of a standard associated with John Coltrane, ‘I Want to Talk About You,’ is the tip-off to the album’s real intentions. More than anything, it suggests a nod to the Coltrane Quartet’s handling of ballads (notably on the 1963 album ‘Ballads’), with burners set to a low simmer. Mr. Scofield’s band features musicians who thrive at this game: the pianist and Hammond B-3 organist Larry Goldings, the bassist Scott Colley and the drummer Brian Blade. On a song like ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ their rapport is the definition of muted tension.

Mr. Scofield takes a natural lead throughout the album, bringing smoky drama to his reading of ‘Throw It Away,’ by Abbey Lincoln, and springy ease to his own ‘Mood Returns.’ By the time he gets to the melody of ‘I Loves You Porgy,’ against a spooky organ accompaniment by Mr. Goldings, the album has its hooks in, and there’s nothing to do but play it again.