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By Asher Wolf
The title of Uncle John’s Band, John Scofield’s third ECM release, refers most directly to the Grateful Dead song that closes the second disc of the set, but the spirit of the outing is also notably avuncular. Despite its wide-ranging repertoire — funk-leaning originals juxtaposed with jazz standards and folk-rock classics — the record’s mood is consistently relaxed. Every song, besides the wistful 1930s ballad “Stairway to the Stars,” could reasonably be described as a jaunty mid-tempo number. And each track is rendered with playful and serene energy, like an uncle kicked back in an armchair honing an old story.
Scofield is in the running for most significant jazz guitarist of his generation, and his bandmates, drummer Bill Stewart and bassist Vicente Archer, are no less respected, having supported the likes of Terence Blanchard, Michael Brecker and Jim Hall. Stewart, in particular, has played with Scofield regularly for more than 30 years, and their mutual familiarity comes through in full color. The two resonate most prominently in their striking balance between heavy-handedness and delicacy. On “Old Man,” Scofield interprets Neil Young’s rustic swagger by flexing time the way a classical pianist does, tumbling loosely through melodic phrases. Guitarist and drummer alike want their hands to really sound like hands. They allow certain hits to stab out suddenly from the groove, toeing the line of awkwardness, while slurring other phrases until they’re nearly swallowed in the mix.
Scofield’s Americana-funk original “Mo Green” also showcases this exquisite pseudo-sloppiness. The band recites a short, simple phrase at length without ever repeating a precise articulation. They give as much attention to touch and physical sound as they do to the language of rhythm and pitch that so often anchors a jazz lover’s value system.
Uncle John’s Band is not a record in which the musicians particularly seem to be pushing themselves. But its most beautiful qualities stem from how solidly these veterans sit within their comfort zones. All the energy of Scofield’s fiery fusion-oriented past is distilled into the myriad details of this laid-back effort.