The Curmudgeon: The Guitar As a Bridge Between Jazz and Rock

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The Curmudgeon: The Guitar As a Bridge Between Jazz and Rock

The broadest bridge between the jazz and rock worlds is the guitar. Almost every jazz guitarist born after World War II started out as a rock guitarist (if we broaden our definition of rock to include funk). In every generation, though, there’s always a handful whose curiosity goes beyond standard blues and country changes, and that inevitably leads them to jazz. That was certainly the case with John Scofield, one of the best six-string slingers of the Baby Boomers. He was 14 when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Like many of his peers, he was inspired to pick up the guitar. Unlike most of those peers, he followed his interests into bebop, but he never turned his back on where he started.

As a result, when Scofield brought his new trio to Baltimore’s Keystone Korner in November, he followed his version of Charlie Parker’s jazz classic, “Confirmation,” with a different kind of standard—a series of chiming, cycling folk phrases that we in the audience eventually recognized as Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Scofield did with it what any jazz musician should do with a standard: establish the theme firmly in our ears and then play endless variations on and counterpoint to the sound in our heads. Those improvisations have greater clarity than most, because John Scofield has such an unerring precision in pitch and rhythm.

That song is the first track on Scofield’s latest album, Uncle John’s Band, whose title track comes from the Grateful Dead and whose seventh track is Neil Young’s “Old Man.” Most of the two-CD set is devoted to Scofield’s originals and to jazz standards such as Miles Davis’s “Budo” and Glenn Miller’s “Stairway to the Stars.” What’s impressive in the interplay between Scofield, drummer Bill Steward and acoustic bassist Vicente Archer is how easily they borrow from the instrumental vocabulary of rock as well as jazz without elevating one above the other. In the process, they redefine the meaning of a “standard.”

Anthem of Unity, the recent album from jazz guitarist Joel Harrison, includes another Dylan composition, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Once again, the familiarity of the theme—and its deep roots in British and Scottish ballads—enable the quartet to freely improvise with confidence that the listener will never get lost. Harrison, another baby-boomer Beatles fan, uses that youthful enthusiasm for the guitar as a platform for exploring everything from South Asian ragas to European-jazz pastoralism. He even adds a New Orleans carnival feel to Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy.”

What also makes the session special is the presence of the legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, who has played with everyone from Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett to Paul Simon and Bruce Hornsby. DeJohnette is a genius at implying the pulse so he can color each succeeding musical passage with a new feel. On this album, he provides both a steadying center and open space for Harrison, keyboardist Gary Versace and saxophonist Greg Tardy to raise their game.

The famed triumvirate of baby-boomer jazz guitarists—Scofield, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny—has inspired countless disciples. One of the best is Kurt Rosenwinkel, whose limpid tone and lyrical inventions give him a signature sound. You can hear that on his recent, unaccompanied-duo album with the pianist Geri Allen, A Lovesome Thing. Allen, older by 13 years, loved the dialogue of playing with Rosenwinkel without a rhythm section. They had planned a studio recording, but sadly Allen died in 2017 before it could happen.

A high-quality tape of them playing together in Paris in 2012 was unearthed and released as A Lovesome Thing. It’s not easy for these two chording instruments to play together without getting in each other’s way, but these two musicians play with such restraint and good taste that that never becomes an issue. They take turns chording while the other plays single-note lines on an original by each plus standards by George Gershwin and Thelonious Monk. The album is a fitting farewell for Allen and a nice introduction for those who don’t already know Rosenwinkel.

Another male/female duo—guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke and vocalist Gretchen Parlato—are featured on the album Lean In. The two have collaborated for years, and their ease with one another is obvious. Loueke grew up in the West African nation of Benin, and he used the clicking sounds of the local language as part of his scatting accompaniment to his staccato, African guitar style. Parlato comes out of the more fluid tradition of North American jazz singing. It’s just the two of them on five of the dozen tracks; the other cuts feature tasteful backing from drummer Mark Guiliana and/or bassist Burniss Travis.

Loueke provides tempo with his vocal clicks, chords with his guitar and improvisation with his solos. Parlato provides most of the lead vocals in an understated, alluring soprano, but can improvise wordless syllables as well as her partner. The album of mostly original tunes climaxes with a cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Walking After You,” one more unexpected jazz standard. Loueke and Parlato give the rock ballad a more cheerful vocal, a springier rhythm and a dreamier solo, proving once again how jazz and rock can feed off each other.

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