A Go Go (Verve)
John Scofield might have laughed if you told him his project with groovemen Medeski, Martin & Wood was going to be his best album ever. The jazz-guitar generalissimo probably figured he’d double-park outside the studio, blow through a few tunes to show the kids he still had his ears open, bug out and roll on to more serious stuff. Well, Scofield surely got his car towed, because this relationship breaks the clock.
The title A Go Go is too cute — it’s clear that all four participants feel nothing but unfeigned love for the ‘60s R&B/blues they mine here. Weird as they might have seemed at times, MMW have always worn their Booker T & the MG’s hip-huggers with full respect. And seconds after immersion in their thick rhythm, Scofield, who rarely needs a transfer to reach the blue line anyway, must have felt his remnant of intellectual chilliness thaw.
The crocuses are a-bloomin’. Not until halfway through the title opener do you realize the quartet is just repeating one progression, so variegated are the accents and colorations: Billy Martin’s limb-flapping New Orleans snare, John Medeski’s rodentlike organ chirps, Scofield’s lazy bluesology. The tributes sneak in from all directions, with a quick pass at the bridge of Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a whiff of Eric Burdon’s “Spill the Wine,” a polyrhythmic extrapolation on Billy Preston’s “Nothin’ From Nothin’,” even a riff thieved from the Bar-Kays’ “Soulfinger.” Or was it just your imagination? Hard to say, since Scofield and Medeski are constantly re-chording the structures or pulling sonic tricks, and there’s the occasional Track From Nowhere like “Hottentot,” whose boogie blues unnervingly masses to manic density, or the angel-dust sci-fi of “Deadzy.” Most ambitious is “Chicken Dog,” which launches from a Jeff Beck shuffle into a thoroughly composed series of changes — Scofield and bassist Chris Wood working the tension of opposition, Scofield and Medeski taking turns being the chunky rhythm, Scofield coming up with a tangy strum to finish.
Holy groove. Pray loud, maybe they’ll tour.
Jazz ’Round Midnight (Verve)
The subtle power of the torch song lies in its intimacy and integrity. In the wrong hands, though, it can be sappy music that tries too hard. This is the dangerous terrain that pianist-vocalist Shirley Horn steps into with Jazz ’Round Midnight.
A compilation of Horn’s previous Verve recordings from 1988 to the present, ’Round Midnight is designed to take advantage of her moodier work. On “Fever,” the Cooley-Davenport tune that has been done more times than Bill Clinton, Horn finds a way to make it her own. She takes a Monkesque, off-tempo approach, slowing down both her vocal and piano phrasing to a churchy lyrical beg. When Horn breathily coos, “Sun lights up the daytime/Moon lights up the night/I light up when you call my name/Cuz I know I’m gonna treat you right,” you get the strong feeling she’s speaking from experience.
Horn’s piano playing works so well because it’s spare, like her vocal phrasing. On several of the tunes, the producers made the poor decision to add strings (and worse: synthesized strings) to music that just needed to be left alone. “Quietly There” slips into the musical soap opera realm, pulled there by an omnipresent orchestra; even Wynton Marsalis’ warm trumpet solo can’t stop the slide. On the King-Parker cut “How Am I To Know,” the beauty of Horn’s only extended solo on the album is canceled out by orchestration that can best be described as smarmy. “Beautiful Love” features a nice duet of Horn’s voice with “Toots” Thielemans’ harmonica and guitar; the haunting, Spanish-flavored ballad is the leanest tune on the album and among the most moving.
The high point is a smoky version of “The Meaning of the Blues.” When the producers came up with the tired title Jazz ’Round Midnight, this is what they were reaching for. The ballad was recorded in Horn’s Washington, D.C., home — by the sound of it, probably ‘round midnight. After a brief, downscaling, minor-chord introduction, accentuated by Roy Hargrove’s round, breathy trumpet work, Horn sighs, “Blue was just the color of the sea/’til my lover left me.” Shirley Horn makes you feel the meaning of the blues. (Michael Datcher)