Bill Frisell and John Scofield: pop go the jazz artists

March 16, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Bill Frisell

Bump (Nonesuch 79583)

John Scofield

Bump (Verve314 543 430)

For years, jazz guitarists have tried to keep their distance from popular music. Even during the fusion boom of the '70s, when the likes of John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell aped the amplification and dynamics of rock, there was no confusing their music with the riffs and rhythms of rock. Certain grooves and certain kinds of melodies simply seemed off-limits to jazz musicians.

Not anymore. The walls between jazz and pop are slowly coming down, thanks to the work of such musicians as John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

Scofield started out as a fusion guitarist, making his name with Billy Cobham's high-powered electric band, but it wasn't until 1998's "A Go Go," recorded with the pop-savvy trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, that Scofield truly began to blur the line between jazz and pop. The music on "A Go Go" was dubbed "groove jazz," and mixed simple, mildly danceable rhythmic ideas with angular harmonies and blues-based improvisations to create a sound that had as much in common with hip-hop and jam band rock as with mainstream jazz.

"Bump" picks up pretty much where "A Go Go" left off. Even though it finds Scofield working with different rhythm sections -- a rotating group of players that includes bassist Chris Wood, drummer Eric Kalb and percussionist Johnny Almendra -- the sound is remarkably consistent, with tracks segueing from one to the next so smoothly you'd almost think you were hearing a single, continuous performance.

In some cases, the pop influence is fairly overt. "Three Sisters," for instance, is built squarely upon the bassline from the Pointer Sisters' hit "Yes, We Can Can," and has Scofield leaning toward a funk vocabulary in his solos. "Grown Man," by contrast, is extremely jazz, with a swing-inflected beat, acoustic bass and harmonic language that allows Scofield to skirt the far reaches of dissonance. But the majority of tracks square the distance the way "Kelpers" does, keeping the rhythms hypnotic and accessible while affording Scofield considerable melodic freedom.

Rhythm plays a much smaller role on Frisell's "Ghost Town," but in part that's because this is a solo album. Instead of leaning on drums, bass or keyboards, Frisell sticks to overdubbed guitars and banjos, an approach that emphasizes the totality of his approach to the instruments.

That's not to say he doesn't try to work a groove here, just that he does so in a fairly unorthodox fashion. "Tell Your Ma, Tell Your Pa," for example, uses repeating "loops" of pre-recorded guitar licks for its rhythmic foundation, establishing a loping, insistent pulse beneath Frisell's piquant banjo.

Other tracks, however, take more of a folk-song approach, downplaying the rhythm so the slowly unfolding melody may take center stage. There's something almost elegiac about the tuneful purity of "Ghost Town/Poem for Eva," while "Follow Your Heart" takes a rambling, discursive approach that seems to suggest what might have happened had Charlie Parker grown up a Delta bluesman.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the album is Frisell's way with standards. He renders the jazz chestnut "When I Fall in Love" on banjo, upending the expected sentimentality with the instrument's tart, twangy sound, while Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is given such an eerie, atmospheric twist you'd almost think it was a Pat Metheny number. It would be hard to imagine stylistic lines being blurred more effectively.

Scofield: ***1/2

Frisell: ***1/2

SOUNDTRACK

Caetano Veloso

Orfeu (Nonesuch 79579)

Although Stan Getz usually gets most of the credit, what first sparked the bossa nova explosion of the early '60s was the soundtrack to the film "Black Orpheus," which linked this jazzy new sound to the traditions of the Brazilian carnival. Four decades later, Caetano Veloso reprises the experience with "Orfeu," a soundtrack that looks back to the original "Black Orpheus" while showing just how modern samba can be. So in addition to offering a poignant, understated remake of "Manha de Carnival," it also delivers a lively, rap-spiked update of the "Carnival Carioca" through "O Entredo de Orfeu." All told, it's everything a fan of Brazilian music could want, mixing jazz, bossa nova and Veloso's inimitable lyricism into a single, irresistible package.

****

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