03/14/05

John Scofield & Brad Mehldau

It can’t be helped. For at least the next few seasons, the three venues at Columbus Circle that now house Jazz at Lincoln Center (Rose Theater, Allen Hall, Dizzy’s) will upstage the stars and merit mention.

This review is no exception and hey, even Scofield and Mehldau saw fit to pay sincere lip service to JALC, and to what is a singular visual and (most importantly) positive listening experience. Not that it was necessary. Rose Theater has three tiers of seating that fully surround the stage, box seats that jut into the hall like the front of roller-coaster cars, and lighting that includes giant color-changing chicklets on the ceiling. Among New York City’s staid, venerable venues, it leaps out.

Sonically as well, at least on this Saturday night, Rose Theater works. The full range of primarily acoustic trios with minimal amplification -- Mehldau the prime example -- projected adequately to fill the hall with clarity and weight. (I listened to the ride cymbal for its crispness and the flavor of the bass drum to start.) Of course, a more rock-influenced band with a full drum kit would prove more of a litmus test (I’ll get back to all when Billy Cobham comes through) but for a light-hearted evening -- in tone, material and swing -- with two well-tuned trios, the room sounded warmly resonant.

The evening’s double-bill (the second of two evenings) placed Scofield on stage first. He may not have been playing with his Uberjam quartet nor with Steve Swallow, but he had his effects, the artful Bill Stewart on drums and Dennis Irwin filling in on bass. And he had a setlist filled with current faves -- “Hammock Soliloquy”, “Over Big Top” -- plus new unveilings: the Ray Charles ballad (actually Eddy Arnold’s) “You Don’t Know Me,” part of his upcoming tribute album to the Ray-Banned legend; and “Worst Hangover,” a funky new original.

Scofield at his best layers riffs and rhythms -- sometimes looping his own phrases electronically -- until he and his band mesh into a satisfying groove: sharp, rhythmic angles and tangles of slight distortion. This night was not his best. The idea was there -- the unannounced funk-fueled number that followed “You Don’t Know Me” certainly had the drive and possibility -- but it never seemed to coalesce and charge ahead like it can; not helping was the guitarist needing to shout the form of “Over Big Top” to Irwin after his sheet music fell off the stand.

Oddly enough, Mehldau was also getting a new trio together: at the end of the set, he took a moment to officially welcome drummer Jeff Ballard (“we all grew up together -- he’s one of us . . .”) into the lineup, as Jorge Rossy’s replacement (“he’s here tonight too.”) Ballard is well-chosen. There were a few rhythmic hiccups, but his approach is compelling and made for a big part of the second set: less experimental and sparse than say Brian Blade, yet reminiscent of Blade’s gear-shifting and rock-informed phrasing.

The other big part was Mehldau himself -- reconstructing and slyly referencing his usually odd assortment of tunes. From Cole Porter’s “You Do Something To Me” (the interplay between Mehldau’s chordal splashes and Ballard’s mallet work was a delight) to Nick Drake’s “Day is Done” (replete with solos from all three.) From Chris Cheek’s Iberian-flavored “Granada” to Henry Mancini’s ethereal “Dreamville.”

The highlight? Two of them: Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” -- the familiar melody so intertwined with the group’s improvisations and so briefly stated (when at all) that it pulled the listener in further. And the set-closer: the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” Given the strength of the Lennon-McCartney well-known lyric, the trio’s performance had no choice but to closely follow the drama of the song to its wistful and bittersweet end.

It was a double-bill that the JALC programming folks hopefully repeat -- one that reaches beyond the just-jazz fans and subscription-series regulars, to a enthused mix of ears. This evening’s near sold-out attendance (despite the $50 to $150 charge) was testament to that winning strategy.

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