Album reviews

John Scofield – ‘Solo’

John Scofield – Solo
(ECM 2727. Album review by Denny Ilett

Ever since Joe Pass’ legendary ‘Virtuoso’ series of unaccompanied albums from the late 1970s, the solo recording has been something of a rite-of-passage for guitarists and we are now blessed with many examples of the craft from the likes of Barney Kessel, Lenny Breau, Martin Taylor and Ted Greene.

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This, John Scofield’s first without a band, represents a new take in the canon although, strictly speaking, it’s more of a duets-with-self album, for the most part, with John employing a looper pedal or overdubbing himself over a pre-recorded chord backing. 

In typical Scofield fashion, the repertoire is a reflection of his love of everything from blues, rock n roll and jazz standards alongside a healthy dose of his own compositions. What ties together a tracklist that includes Harry Warren’s There Will Never be Another You with Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away; Jimmy Van Huesen’s It Could Happen To You with Hank Williams’ You Win Again is Scofield’s truly unique way of approaching melody and improvisation. It’s an approach that magically crosses genres and sits comfortably regardless of the material. It’s an approach that makes John Scofield one of a handful of artists in jazz history whose playing can be recognised after a single phrase.

Being a true ‘road warrior’ and, traditionally, a collaborative artist, this album was clearly inspired (if that’s the right word) by the isolation that musicians endured during the Covid lockdowns and one wonders if this recording would have been made had there been no pandemic. One can imagine Scofield, at home, with a slew of cancelled dates to mull over, quietly working his way through whatever tune came into his head that day until these thirteen tracks were decided upon. The end result makes the listener feel as though they’re a fly-on-the-wall eavesdropping on a private moment as John figures his way through each piece. 

One potential pitfall of the solo album is that they can often sound over-composed and suffer from a lack of spontaneity along with a dynamic ‘flatline’ that a listener could find monotonous. With John Scofield, however, this is certainly not the case. Yes, this is an intimate and, at times, introspective album, but Scofield has an innate ability to sustain interest to the point where one ends up wishing for just one more song from the master!

This, for me, is due to his ability to always keep the listener guessing. You may think you know what’s coming but, when it arrives, you wonder how! His patent edge-of-the-seat bluesy, angular be-bop; his way of finding chord tones that others don’t think of; his way of exploring a melody to its fullest and his way of truly offering us a part of himself through his music encompasses that ‘sound of surprise’ element that separates good jazz from great.

Whilst Scofield clearly thrives in the company of others, this album is an important and frankly beautiful addition to his discography. It offers us a rare glimpse into a more private side of his musical personality and one is left with the impression that he has selected these songs just for you. Ultimately, it serves as a reminder that, despite the hardships of the last two years, life, and music, will prevail and John Scofield will be there to give us a little more of that magical guitar.

LINK: Solo at ECM Records

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