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ScoLoHoFo: Oh!

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illustration of ScoLoHoFo (Clockwise: Joe Lovano, Al Foster, Dave Holland, John Scofield)

It’s generally a good idea to approach supergroups with a diminished enthusiasm. After all, outsized egos, nonexistent chemistry, careless attitudes, histrionics and throwaway tunes can sink these things as often as not. Even barring outright disaster, how often does the music equal the promise of that big stack of big names?

As it happens, Oh! pretty much lives up to the hype.

Not at all some artificially-produced afterthought of a band, ScoLoHoFo, which includes-in case the silly name has not already clued you in-guitarist John Scofield, saxophonist Joe Lovano, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Al Foster, has been around a few years now. Lovano put the band together in 1999 for the final night of his weeklong engagement at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the band decamped for a European festival tour quickly thereafter. Lovano, Scofield and Holland each have well-established solo careers, and Foster is no slouch either. But the band members enjoyed the last tour so much that they put their solo projects momentarily on hold and reconvened in ’02 for another European summer excursion. Blue Note boss Bruce Lundvall would have been remiss (not to mention sick in the head) had he not put the band in a studio right after its second tour.

Oh! is no afterthought of a recording, either. All the band members contributed material to the project, and at least two tunes from each musician made the final cut. The quartet then worked over the themes while on tour. What ScoLoHoFo ended up with for Oh! is a well-balanced program of attractive themes-some Latin bits, a few ballads, a few smokers and the requisite blues closer-which give the musicians plenty of harmonic meat to chew on. And what they have they certainly chew up.

The band is so comfortable with the material and one another that every tune, from the ballads to the smokers, has the feel of a midtempo glide. Lovano must have especially enjoyed himself; he sounds loose and supremely confidant throughout, whether leading the band through unexpected double-time passages on the title track or selling the free-ish head that opens his composition “New Amsterdam.” Lovano’s presence brings the usually grooved-out Scofield more solidly into a jazz-based mode. The guitarist largely lays aside the funk touches and spare phrasing for long, snakey, slur-built lines, wide intervals and canny chordal improvisation with a tone that occasionally touches the hard side of classic. It is a welcome though unnecessary reminder that Scofield’s playing consists of much more than a signature distortion tone with funk flourishes, and those who generally like his guitar style but haven’t been thrilled with his recent jam/electrofunk projects need look no further than Oh! And by the way, Holland and Foster have absolutely no problem keeping up.

Much of Oh! is congenial in the best way. Listening is like eavesdropping on a discussion between four extremely smart, witty people. There are long discursions, like the roughhouse freebop of “New Amsterdam” and Scofield’s gritty solo response therein, and Foster’s aptly named ballad “Bittersweet,” which earns its title with a few tart notes thrown into an otherwise breezy and untroubled theme. And there are plenty of small, trenchant moments, like Lovano’s abruptly ended statement and Holland’s lag-time bass lines on “Brandyn,” or Scofield’s strikingly simple, on-the-beat, stacatto chords that come out of nowhere just as the rest of the band drops out halfway through “Right About Now.”

Oh! is not a recording that will shatter anyone’s worldview, but this unpretentious, intelligent, semicasual throwdown will certainly please anyone who’s enjoyed the modern postbop sound that these guys have worked so hard to create.