Later this month, elite jazz guitarist John Scofield will release a new CD, This Meets That, which includes Scofield's long time friend and sometimes bass player Steve Swallow. I'll be covering that CD very soon, but listening to this fresh new offering from Scofield harks back to his days before his stint with Miles helped to make him a household name within the realm of modern jazz axe players. More to the point, that little-known release from a late 1981 show, called Shinola.
By the early '80s, John Scofield already had some distinctions to brag about: a Berklee School of Music grad who had worked as a sideman to luminaries like Charles Mingus and Billy Cobham. He launched his solo career around 1977 and started out playing electric bop with a moderate rock edge. Back then, he's recorded a number of albums under small labels like Enja, with the majority of them taped live in clubs. All of these records are consistently good but not quite outstanding; Scofield's advanced technique is already there, but he hadn't yet achieved the wide range in his playing and much depth in his songwriting that would both become routine in his recordings from the middle '80s on.
However, right toward the end of his formative first era before joining Davis' band in 1982, Scofield, Swallow and drummer Adam Nussbaum played for a small crowd in Munich, West Germany, where everything seemed to be coming together for him. The six tracks contained in Shinola were actually only part of the club date; the slightly lesser companion album Out Like A Light contains the rest of the gig.
This trio's lineup had by then been playing together for nearly a couple of years and it shows on this record. The chemistry throughout reveals itself in all the varying moods presented here, from the pastel "Yawn" to the frenetic "Dr. Jackle." Scofield and Swallow in particular seem to read each other's minds like an open book.
Since this record works so well largely because of Swallow, it's probably a good time to explain what he brings to the table. Steve Swallow has been on the scene as a bass player since joining Paul Bley's group in 1960. He's since played for a ridiculously long list of greats beginning with Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton. For the last 30 years, his most consistent and closest association has been with creative jazz composer, arranger and pianist Carla Bley (Paul's ex). Swallow has distinguished himself as a composer as well and as a leader with some albums under his own name.
But the distinction of Swallow is truly his bass; around 1970 he dumped his acoustic stand-up for an electric and never looked back. In doing so, though, he never dropped his be-bop tendencies. He plays typically at the high end of the register and plays very much in tune with the harmony. This could be construed as saying he plays like Paul McCartney, but he doesn't sound like Macca at all; his style is more like a plugged-in Scott LaFaro.
Swallow tends to play a different melodic line than the leader, but somehow makes it fit within the overall song. The wandering "Jean The Bean" is a perfect example of the bass player doing his own thing while listening carefully to what Scofield is playing at the same time. It's chemistry that only comes from playing together for a while.
The only cover of this set, Jackie McLean's "Dr. Jackle" finds Sco cutting loose playing some demonic bop lines while Swallow walks his bass up and down with precision. Nussbaum gets an opportunity to solo, too, and he takes good advantage of it.
It's right at the end where Sco uncorks a curveball to the audience: the brief, all-out rocker of the title song that puts the "power" in power trio and reveals that underneath all the straight bop that Scofield has carefully woodshedded for, he's still a rock 'n' roll guy at heart.
Shinola used to be a nearly impossible CD to find; the one I managed to score at a Berkeley, Calif. record store about ten years ago has liner notes that are useless unless you can read Japanese. Even today it's still only sporadically available compared to Scofield's much better known recent records. But if you've mined Scofield's repertoire of the last 20 years and are ready to delve into his work as a burgeoning, 20-something talent, Shinola is the one to go for first. It wouldn't be a bad idea to go exploring some of Swallow's own works as well.