Canons are useful constructs when looking at the history of the arts, and organizations like Jazz at Lincoln Center are synonymous with the virtues and vices of honoring such a hall-of-fame concept. Holding up a curated list of masters and epochs is important, but there are snares to consider, like repetition and the exclusion of great music not yet old enough for a historian’s judgment.
The guitarist and composer John Scofield, for his JALC retrospective, titled “Quiet and Loud Jazz” and held May 5-6 in the Appel Room, upended common notions of what it means to revisit the past in jazz programming. In one roughly 90-minute program, Scofield returned to two albums: Blue Matter, a 1987 LP reflecting a specific era of brainy funk-fusion; and Quiet, from 1996, where he plays acoustic guitar and authors arrangements evoking the cinematic expanse of Gil Evans. These are terrific albums but not necessarily the records you’d point to as Scofield’s most representative work—that would be, say, his fearsome postbop quartet with saxophonist Joe Lovano, or his jam-band-tinged jazz-rock period that began with 1998’s A Go Go. But those angles have seen action in recent years, making this JALC run a fan’s delight. These weren’t ensembles you would expect to be resurrected, adding an element of surreality to the evening.
The Quiet portion came first, and it recaptured the record’s orchestral glow and charming melodic-harmonic shapes while enacting a couple of key tweaks. Surprisingly, Scofield played his usual semi-hollowbody electric guitar rather than acoustic; and Wayne Shorter, the album’s special tenor guest, was replaced by Lovano, whose frequent spotlights spilled over with the robustly lyrical tone and phrasing that are his trademark.
The “Loud” half was in several ways more fascinating, because its datedness reminded you how severely aesthetics can change in music, even jazz, and how dangerous it is to be blinded by off-trend elements like the keyboard sounds Jim Beard played. This was dynamic, deeply interactive electric jazz at its core, pseudo-smooth synth tones be damned. Slapping and popping, bassist Gary Grainger dropped an anchor while ramping up the percussive flair, and Dennis Chambers made his metrically daunting polyrhythmic drumming as comfortable as straight funk. The forms came off as through-composed, yet everything felt like home. It could have been nostalgia, or just the satisfaction of hearing very, very good music.