It may sound incredulous to veteran fusion heads, but there’s a cultish fan base who believes John Scofield’s A Go Go is as important a jazz record as Head Hunters. A Go Go was Scofield’s 1998 collaboration with downtown jam-jazzers Medeski, Martin and Wood, a recording that introduced Scofield to the youthful (and loyal) jam-band audience, in addition to legitimizing MMW’s claim as an evolutionary step in soul-jazz rather than a Jimmy Smith trio recast for Deadheads and DJs.
All the attention was well-deserved, and A Go Go is, truth be told, a groove masterpiece. It’s perpetually funky yet restrained and understated, and Scofield and Medeski solo with postbop- and avant-garde-inspired harmonic daring where blues clichés might have sufficed. Most importantly, Scofield’s tunes were as memorable and well-designed as Blue Note standards without sounding derivative. “Hottentot,” “Chank” and the title track are as strong contenders for inclusion in the Real Book as anything written in the last 20 years.
Now billed as Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood, the band reportedly composed these tracks by jamming hard and free in MMW’s Brooklyn studio, recording the results and cobbling their favorite bits into tunes. However egalitarian the group’s intentions, the album better represents Scofield weaving in and around MMW’s hypnotic, psych-jazz atmosphere than four-way collaboration. Out Louder is interesting—fascinating, even, in parts—but could use a few more memorable heads in the middle and an overall tightening up (or editing down).
Things begin promisingly with “Little Walter Rides Again,” the album’s lone Scofield original and the song that most closely channels the spirit of A Go Go: The group plays Meters-inflected jazz-funk straighter here than it did in 1998. Scofield lays into a slight rewrite of a Little Walter harp lick while MMW summons a golden-age Lonnie Smith or Jack McDuff combo. “Miles Behind” is, expectedly, an homage to fusion’s freewheeling seminal era. Sco’s cacophonous noodling over Billy Martin’s elastic funk rhythms explodes into propulsive jazz-rock with an urgency that recalls Lifetime’s “Emergency.” In fact, the cut approximates Lifetime’s thrashing sheets of rock-inspired postbop more convincingly than Scofield’s recent Trio Beyond band—a virtuosic group albeit one sonically tamer than its inspiration. Medeski recalls Jan Hammer’s most adventurous Mahavishnu moments and the two Johns alternate rapid-fire runs with noise and free playing until their momentum implodes. It’s absolutely killing.
Front and center on “In Case the World Changes Its Mind” is a smart, buoyant clavinet melody that highlights what’s missing in overlong, indulgent lock-step jams like “Down the Tube”—tracks that recall MMW at their most tedious (or “trance-inducing,” if you count yourself among the jam-band or acid-jazz faithful). After Chris Wood’s Mediterranean, almost Django-ian rubato bass-guitar intro, “Tequila and Chocolate” is an enticing six and a half minutes of demented 1960s lounge grooves; Martin’s Latin rhythms samba beneath Scofield’s backwards-looped runs and Medeski’s cocktail-hour tune.
All genres are channeled through a similar postmodern filter, and even something essentially bluesy like “What Now” becomes a scrambled, syncopated, noise-saturated freak-out. After so many like tracks, the ethereal take on the Beatles’ “Julia”—where Medeski holds static chords behind Scofield’s elegant and expressive delivery of the vocal line—is a musical epiphany of sorts. A cover of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” closes the set and further points to why certain tracks on Out Louder surpass others. Undoubtedly composed of masterful improvisers, this quartet achieves more when it places compositional purpose atop trippy ambience.