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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

New John Scofield album "Piety Street" proves pious

By Sam Robertson

John Scofield, famous as one of the godfathers of modern jazz guitar, surprises his fans with his new album, titled “Piety Street.” Scofield began his career in the mid seventies, playing guitar for jazz legends such as Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. Lately he’s been touring with the jazz improvisation group Medeski, Martin & Wood and taking experimental jazz to new levels. Over his entire career, Scofield has impressed jazz aficionados with his playing in traditional jazz groups while at the same time constantly experimenting and incorporating new sounds into “jazz.” With “Piety Street,” Scofield continues to explore new territory, tapping into a form of American music that is even older than jazz: gospel. “Piety Street” is an album of classic gospel songs played by incredibly talented musicians. Except for a Scofield original instrumental, the songs are all old, traditional gospel songs. However, Scofield did rewrite the arrangements to the songs and infuses them with his band’s style and energy. Scofield’s band is held down by the terrific rhythm section of George Porter Jr. on bass and Ricky Fataar on drums. Porter played bass for the Meters, who defined New Orleans music with their combination of funk, soul, jazz and gospel. Porter’s funky basslines and Fataar’s tight drumming create a solid backing for Scofield to solo on top of.

However, this album differs from most Scofield albums in that his guitar solos are not the sole focus of the album. For “Piety Street,” Scofield recruited keyboardist and singer Jon Cleary from New Orleans who not only contributes funky organ riffs but brings the gospel songs to life with his soulful vocals. New Orleans soul singer John Boutte also sings on several songs on the album, including a beautiful duet with Cleary on “Something’s Got A Hold On Me.” At first, vocals on a Scofield album sounds like a strange concept, but they suit the music perfectly and are one of the album’s biggest strengths.

Besides the strong vocals, Scofield himself is in top form. In a short documentary about the album, Scofield explained that he originally wanted to create a blues album but decided on gospel because there were thousands of blues albums. However, the blues influence is apparent in Scofield’s playing, and most of his guitar solos blur the line between blues and jazz. The combination of blues, jazz and gospel on this album is reminiscent of Albert King’s 1960’s work when he was backed by the soul band Booker T. and the MG’s.

The tight rhythm section and Cleary’s funky organ provide the perfect backing for Scofield’s piercing, soulful guitar solos. In a recent interview with Glide Magazine, he described how he approached the guitar differently on this album than he has in the past, saying, “First of all I’m trying to play the blues, not a whole billion bunch of notes, like jazz guys play. And secondly, I’m trying to play lyrically: I’m trying to play like a singer on the guitar. Less is more.” Even though his playing is somewhat restrained compared to some of his other albums, it is still as bright and tasteful as ever.

Despite the emphasis on vocals instead of guitar, Scofield opens the first song, “That’s Enough” soloing over a funky rhythm before Jon Cleary begins to sing “I’ve got Jesus” and changes the song’s focus to the vocals. Most of the songs on the album follow a very similar structure to “That’s Enough.” The album’s major weakness is its repetitiveness. The songs rarely deviate from the pattern of a short guitar intro by Scofield, vocals, guitar solo, and more vocals. Unfortunately, the tremendously talented rhythm section is fairly restrained. They create funky rhythms and grooves that suit the songs perfectly, but too often take a backseat to Scofield instead of leading the jams into new territory, something that they are clearly capable of doing.

The final flaw of the album is the lyrical content, which cannot be blamed on Scofield and his band. Religion is entrenched in gospel music, and hearing Cleary sing about how great it is to be saved by Jesus gets tiresome by the end of the album. But if the lyrics weren’t overly religious, it wouldn’t be a gospel album. While the songs and lyrics are somewhat repetitive, the general sound of the album is so inventive, fresh and captivating that the flaws are easy to overlook. Scofield describes his band’s sound as jazz gospel, and with “Piety Street,” he has created a very strong album that shows his mastery of multiple genres of music.

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