At age 66, guitarist John Scofield has earned heroic jazz/fusion status for his understated style, open mind, and tributaries that include releases with jam-band festival faves Medeski, Martin & Wood and Gov’t Mule. On Combo 66, Scofield adopts a unique, hybrid electric/acoustic improvisational format—in which he’s often the only electric instrumentalist—with a quartet rounded out by younger, energetic players in keyboardist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, and drummer Bill Stewart.
The buoyant opener “Can’t Dance,” with Clayton on Hammond organ, echoes guitarist George Benson’s work with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith from the mid-1960s. The nimble keyboardist, son of esteemed Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra bassist John Clayton, switches to acoustic piano for the subsequent, downshifted “Combo Theme,” on which he and Archer (another versatile player who plays both acoustic and electric basses, but sticks to upright throughout this disc) each take stirring solos.
The 52-year-old Stewart isn’t a generation younger than Scofield like his other bandmates, yet he’s been the catalyst for several of the guitarist’s bands since the 1990s. On the frenetic “Icons at the Fair,” as on much of the CD, he blends percolating timekeeping on his ride cymbal, kick, and snare with rolling thunder accents on his tom-toms.
And then there’s the inimitable Scofield, who penned all nine compositions here. “New Waltzo,” with its ominous intro and left-of-center approach to time signatures divisible by three, sounds unlike any waltz that preceded it. And slower pieces like “Uncle Southern” and “I’m Sleeping In” especially showcase the guitarist’s most rare of gifts for players on his instrument: restraint and use of space. Combo 66 may be named for Scofield’s age, but it sounds as timeless as he does ageless.