It can't be easy to hold onto a Verve contract in the midst of the company's drastic downsizing. But to do what John Scofield has done here-revive a jazz trio he last documented in the early 1980s-signifies an even rarer kind of clout. Commercially, Scofield owes his powerhouse status in part to his jam-band crossover projects, beginning with 1997's A Go Go, his sophomore Verve release in the company of Medeski, Martin & Wood. His two outings thus far with the John Scofield Band, Uberjam and Up All Night, have popularized him further without dumbing him down. The JSB albums are heavy on the funk, with sonic references to hip-hop and DJ culture. EnRoute, on the other hand, is a swingin' affair, and perhaps a riskier business proposition. But when heavyweights like Scofield want to swing, companies like Verve listen.
EnRoute's historical antecedents are Out Like a Light (1981) and Shinola (1982), both on Enja. An earlier trio album, Bar Talk, came out on Jive/Novus in 1980 and is quite hard to find. Scofield recorded these albums live in Europe with Steve Swallow on electric bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. On EnRoute, Scofield and Swallow reunite, with Bill Stewart taking over for Nussbaum on drums. The setting, once again, is live: nine tracks in all, culled from a stint at the Blue Note in New York in December 2003.
Out Like a Light and Shinola consisted mainly of original tunes by Scofield, and those tunes stand up remarkably well today. The lazy swagger of "Why'd You Do It?" and "Rags to Riches," the free-play of "Out Like a Light," the tempoless duo musings of Scofield and Swallow on "Jean the Bean," the dark, ethereal magic of "Yawn," the powerful grooves of "Miss Directions" and "Holidays," the garage-rock bombast and latent subtlety of "Shinola": this remains some of the strongest, most idiosyncratic writing of Sco's career.
The Shinola trio did not record again, but its members continued to work together often. Scofield and Nussbaum played in Dave Liebman's group in the late '70s. The guitarist rejoined Swallow in Paul Bley's group of the mid-'80s. Swallow has used Nussbaum on his last three XtraWatt releases, the most recent being Damaged in Transit, a spellbinding trio date not with Scofield but with Chris Potter. (Liebman has done trio gigs with Swallow and Nussbaum as well.) In the mid-'90s, Bill Stewart and Swallow appeared together on two exceptional Scofield albums, I Can See Your House From Here and Quiet, joined by Pat Metheny and a large ensemble respectively. A Scofield trio with Swallow and Stewart was just waiting to happen.
The six Scofield originals on EnRoute don't rise to the level of the '80s trio records, but they're consistently engaging, and they bring out the best in every band member. The album packs a punch that only three well-acquainted players can deliver. In comparison, 2001's Works for Me, Scofield's last straightahead jazz album, is far less exploratory, despite the input of all-stars Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Billy Higgins.
Scofield's playing, although highly developed back in the '80s, is now more advanced rhythmically; his tone is a bit cleaner and more trebly. Swallow's attack is less rubbery, less aggressive (or perhaps just too low in the mix). While Nussbaum tends to be a charger and a pounder, Stewart is more of a polyrhythmic gymnast.
The three lead off with Denzil Best's "Wee," a tuneful "rhythm changes" head that finds Scofield in fine boppish form. "Toogs," a loping 5/4 piece with a strong melody, brings to mind Out Like a Light's "Last Week," a 7/4 variant of Kern's "Yesterdays." Returning to bop, the trio devours Swallow's "Name That Tune," a "Perdido" spinoff that first appeared on the bassist's quintet album Deconstructed, with Mick Goodrick on guitar. Scofield gives it a toothier, more extroverted treatment.
Three Scofield originals follow. "Hammock Soliloquy," a solid showcase for Stewart, begins and ends with a behind-the-beat feel in four but segues to fast waltz-time for the solos. "Bag" is a midtempo, organ-trio-type blues with a melody that should be a standard. "It Is Written" is an intriguing if not very memorable 4/4 swing tune, with ascending changes in the repeating 16-bar A section and a pedal-point tonality in the eight-bar B section. "Alfie," played beautifully by the trio, is the disc's only standard and also its only ballad. Wrapping up, Sco and company rip through the modified minor blues "Travel John" and stretch out on the syncopated funk vehicle "Over Big Top," a modification of 1995's "Big Top."
As always, Scofield inflects even flat-out bebop with a deeply guitaristic blues sensibility. Often he'll rely on edgy two-note ideas that sound like full chords thanks to the slight crunch in his sound. And even though EnRoute is in essence a "straightahead" album, Scofield doesn't hesitate to stomp on his Whammy pedal to warp and color a final chord, or to push a heated vamp over the edge.
Scofield has always been true to his evolving identity as an improviser, no matter what style he is playing. The John Scofield Band is a logical continuation of his hard-funk Gramavision period, or for that matter his tenure with a very electric Miles Davis. But even in his '80s fusion heyday, Scofield would turn up at the now-defunct Fat Tuesday's in New York, playing "It Could Happen to You" with Eddie Gomez and Al Foster, sounding very much like himself. We don't hear him play straightahead often enough, apart from his brilliant contributions on things like ScoLoHoFo's Oh!, Roy Haynes' Love Letters, Chris Potter's Unspoken and Joe Henderson's So Near, So Far. This new trio document couldn't have come at a better time.