Chronology: Three Munich Nights with John Scofield

Scofield, Steve Swallow, and Adam Nussbaum's December 1981 European tour led to the release of two LPs that are worth hearing again

Left to right: Steve Swallow, Adam Nussbaum, and John Scofield in the Subway Club in Cologne, Germany, 1981 (photo: courtesy of Adam Nussbaum)

Although the Enja label had more room for hard-swinging jazz of the old school than ECM did, producers Matthias Winckelmann and Horst Weber were undoubtedly inspired by the success of Manfred Eicher’s label. Both Enja and ECM were German record companies documenting ’70s innovation under a mysterious acronym; both began their catalog with a release by Mal Waldron. Shortly after Eicher produced the first albums by John Abercrombie (Timeless, recorded 1974) and Pat Metheny (Bright Size Life, recorded 1975), Winckelmann and Weber put out the first album by John Scofield: Live, a 1977 gig tape with Richie Beirach, George Mraz, and Joe LaBarbera. That was followed by a studio date with Hal Galper, Stafford James, and Adam Nussbaum (Rough House, recorded 1978). These early Scofield discs with piano are fun documents of an era, a moment when the best and brightest were working out the Coltrane/Tyner language in an acoustic fusion context, but they are perhaps a little too airless and relentless for classic status.

In December 1981, Scofield toured with his peer Nussbaum and a major voice from the previous generation, Steve Swallow. Enja helped put the tour together and released two LPs of music from a three-night stand at Club Vielharmonie in Munich. Scofield’s conception had new breadth, depth, and subtlety, and his bandmates were on the same joyous page. Shinola and Out Like a Light have been touchstones ever since. 

All three members of the trio were great jazz players. Nussbaum absorbed some of Elvin Jones’ lope, especially in triplet meter as on “Why’d You Do It?,” and fit far more easily in a swinging context than many of his peers. Swallow had been playing electric bass for a decade and offered an engaging balance between soulful and fluid, at times filling out the sound of this group by comping in the high register. Scofield’s command of bebop wouldn’t stop him from dealing out lyrical dirty overdriven blues, no matter the composition at hand. Their collective dedication to tradition is displayed on Jackie McLean’s uptempo “Dr. Jackle.” While seriously burning, there’s also something a shade too even and tight about the band’s turn-on-a-dime phrasing on this hard bop classic. These were the fusion years, after all, and nearly everyone was trying to figure out how to make electricity greasy. (You could argue that Scofield was more consistently successful at keeping grit in the mix than Abercrombie or Metheny, although of course all three are fabulous guitarists.) 

The band’s strengths come into greater focus when not playing conventional jazz. Take the whole second side of Shinola: “Jean the Bean” is a delicate yet tough rubato duo for bass and guitar. “Rags to Riches” begins as a swinger with odd phrases, then discovers delightful chaos in blowing; Swallow’s old bandleader Paul Bley may be a reference. “Shinola” is unrepentant off-kilter fusion turned up to 11, with Nussbaum hitting like a demented child under discordant guitar licks. 

Out Like a Light, meanwhile, covers a lot of ground with grace and good humor. The opening “Holidays” is a little “country,” while a 7/4 version of the Jerome Kern standard “Yesterdays” called “Last Week” went on to be influential in jazz schools. When the prolonged free-form mayhem of “Out Like a Light” is followed by Scofield’s unaccompanied rumination on Burton Lane’s “Melinda” (which seems influenced by the version recorded by Bill Evans and Stan Getz), it somehow makes a lot of sense. 

I asked Steve Swallow about the Munich gig, who said, “The audience at the Vielharmonie was young, beer-drinking, pot-smoking, balls-to-the-wall, and the trio’s music was a part of that milieu. Audiences in jazz clubs in the U.S.A. had become more sedate and elderly, though no less fond of getting snockered. The music on the two CDs from ’81 recalls for me a place as well as a time, and reminds me how much fun can be had with a musical instrument.”

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Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.