Scofield Channels Ray Charles at Regattabar

Rachel L. Weiss

John Scofield, in all his bespectacled and graying glory, may seem an unlikely candidate to spearhead a Ray Charles revival. Indeed, when one considers Scofield’s extensive jazz pedigree, his compatibility with the Charles oeuvre seems questionable. But while his twistedly vertical guitar style may have conflicted with the source material at times, nearly everyone at the show thought it was a success.

This past Thursday and Friday, John Scofield (guitar/mastermind), John Benitez (bass), Steve Hass (drums), Gary Versace (keys/Hammond) and Meyer Statham (vocals/trombone) played four shows at the Charles Hotel’s renowned Regattabar jazz club.

The shows were part of a 17-date tour in support of Scofield’s latest album, entitled “That’s What I Say—JS Plays The Music of Ray Charles.” That studio effort features a nigh-unbeatable cast, but Scofield’s road ensemble proved itself a more-than-worthy replacement, combining unfailingly tight rhythms with inventive leads.

In addition to their remarkable musicianship, all the performers exhibited wide smiles throughout the gig, which contributed to the happiness of the atmosphere. Benitez and Scofield in particular seemed thrilled to be playing such classic songs, and frequently traded wry glances after interesting riffs or interjections. Hass was a dynamic presence on the kit, managing simultaneously to provide an unshakable foundation for the band and to keep things exciting with his enthusiastic series of drum punctuations.

Benitez hung back from the spotlight, taking only one full solo over the course of the night, but he showcased an endless repertoire of funky basslines. He and Hass were in constant touch for the whole show and proved themselves one of the better rhythm sections to visit Cambridge recently.

Unfortunately, Versace’s off-putting stage presence distracted from his competent chops: he mouthed—with great enthusiasm—every note that he played on the keyboard. Statham, though his trombone skills were limited, turned out to be a great singer and performer, especially on the standout “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” which featured a burning double-time jazz-improv section.

And yet, whenever Versace was not singing or playing, he tended to retreat to the wall behind the stage—or, worse, to the band room. This behavior, reminiscent of Zeppelin’s infamous departure from the stage during a performance of drum-centric “Moby Dick,” was somewhat bizarre, as Statham seemed so involved when on stage.

Scofield himself was inventive as always; his guitar lines were mind-bendingly complicated at times, syncopated and fluid at others. Still, he never really abandons the post-bop vocabulary of his previous album, “EnRoute.”

While his jazz-inflected playing is interesting in its own way, there is something removed and academic about his endless modal cycles. The style becomes a bit tiresome about halfway through his sets. One can only marvel at his muscle memory for so long before all his solos start to sound a little too familiar.

Part of it, for me at least, was that while discordant jazz lines can sound cool in the right context, most of the songs played on Friday night were founded in the blues or gospel tradition and deserved different treatment. I kept wanting Scofield to bend a few notes, or to play a few more pentatonic licks, particularly on such blues-based tunes as “I Don’t Need No Doctor” or “You Don’t Know Me”.

Occasionally, he would oblige with a more traditional phrase, but he seemed almost self-conscious about stepping out of his neo-jazzman role, as if the Regattabar crowd were only there to see him play masturbatory solos and twitchingly manipulate various effects pedals.

Versace seemed to suffer from a similar affliction; it often felt as if he was merely trying to be edgy instead of playing emotionally. Perhaps it goes with the territory. I wonder whether Scofield can actually play an entire solo viscerally without dipping into his grab-bag of jazz pyrotechnics. If so, I have yet to see it.

Despite the frustratingly self-conscious solos, I was really impressed by what an energetic and powerful performance Sco and Co. gave. While some of Scofield’s own material tends to be rather oblique, Charles was a natural songwriter, and his tunes stand up well to reinterpretation.

Statham was able to channel the blues and gospel traditions in his singing and seemed to delight in pleasing the crowd, as did the entire group. Of course, with a house full of music lovers, a collection of incredible musicians and a repertoire of undeniably soulful tunes, it can’t be that hard to keep people happy. Now if we could only get Scofield to play a set that lasts longer than an hour and a half.

—Staff writer Nathaniel Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at nhafrey@fas.harvard.edu.

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