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REVIEW: John Scofield at the Malta Jazz Festival

REVIEW: John Scofield at the Malta Jazz Festival

Guitarist John Scofield. Credit: Pierre Stafrace

John Scofield

Credit: Pierre Stafrace

On Saturday 15 July, the Malta Jazz Festival welcomed guitar luminary John Scofield for a thrilling blues and pop-influenced set featuring a line-up of leading American musicians

This year’s Malta Jazz Festival, which took place 11 – 16 July, was one clearly welcomed by Malta’s thriving jazz community following two years of reduced activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival featured a stunning line-up of both leading local and international musicians across an eclectic spectrum of jazz, with the festival’s penultimate day presenting a concert by the distinguished American guitarist, John Scofield.

This year’s festival was held in honour of its founder, Charles “City” Gatt, the eminent jazz percussionist and painter, whose tireless efforts to grow and promote the country’s jazz scene provided a hitherto overlooked musical landscape for Malta’s next generation of emerging artists, and laid the groundwork for the country’s continued appreciation for jazz today.

Scofield’s concert followed an opening trio performance led by the noted New York-based pianist, keyboardist and composer, Danny Grissett, with both concerts taking place at Valletta’s Quarry Wharf (“Ta’ Liesse”). Oh My Malta headed to Malta’s capital to check out the flagship evening of the festival.

Danny Grissett

Credit: Joseph P. Smith

Danny Grissett Trio

The evening opened with an original work by Danny Grissett entitled Stride. This first piece seemed prophetically named, displaying a bold starting character and featuring fluid melodic lines, masterful ensemble cohesion and subtle yet impactful drum contributions from Francesco Ciniglio. His strategic placement of off-beat ride cymbal hits, for example, was understated yet highly resonant, and added much to the piece’s ending section.

The trio displayed that important quality that can at times be missing from small ensemble setups, namely the ability to provide variation and continued interest, despite the textural restrictions that come as a natural result of having less possible instrumental combinations. Their choice of repertoire was varied and inventive, the first piece followed by Mulgrew Miller’s blues When I Get There — featuring an enjoyable percussive solo from bassist Luca Fattorini — and Grissett’s original composition Lament for Bobby, a touching work written in memory of his late brother.

Original works clearly form an important part of Grissett’s output, and their inclusion in the programme was both welcome and interesting. The pianist’s Spin Cycle, for example, provided ample opportunity for an engaging piano solo, artfully supported by precise synchronised backings and rhythmic interjections from Ciniglio and Fattorini. These backings, in fact, summarised the high-quality approach to ensemble coordination displayed by the trio, which, throughout the concert, evoked that ineffable singular-voice-quality so enjoyable in successful small group settings.

Grissett clearly has a deep affection for America’s leading artists of the 20th century, Saturday’s setlist including works by Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. The choice of Bernstein’s Some Other Time was an excellent one, revealing a deeply reflective aesthetic and masterful use of harmony, the piece’s haunting melody punctuated by inventive descending harmonic figurations.

The concert’s last two works provided a balanced and well-considered conclusion, reaffirming the individual band members’ own prodigious skill as well as the group’s effortless symbiosis — the latter particularly exhibited throughout Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss and in the expertly controlled oscillating between bebop and half-time rhythmic feels in Gillespie’s Wouldn’t You. These last two works, in particular, shone a welcome spotlight on the trio’s leader, both as a soloist and as an ensemble member, his abstract harmonic reimagining in the Ellington and masterful supporting interjections during the drum solo in the Gillespie complemented by his engaging and virtuosic improvisation throughout — something especially noticeable in Prelude to a Kiss. I thoroughly enjoyed this opening performance, and one I believe to have been a shrewd programming choice on the part of the festival team in the context of the following performance by John Scofield.

John Scofield, Josh Dion and Vincente Archer. Credit: Pierre Stafrace

John Scofield, Josh Dion and Vincente Archer

Credit: Pierre Stafrace

John Scofield's "Yankee Go Home"

Guitar legend John Scofield has been at the forefront of jazz for almost fifty years, recording over 30 albums as bandleader, touring extensively around the world and being recognised for bringing a unique and innovative voice to his many performances. He has collaborated with Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson and Dave Holland, amongst many others, and is noted for his eclectic range of influences and performing styles, spanning blues, funk, jazz fusion, soul and rock.

Following past performances at the Malta Jazz Festival in 2004 and 2009, this year saw the welcome return of this titan of jazz with a concert entitled “Yankee Go Home”. The performance featured a prodigious all-American line-up, including Jon Cowherd on piano and keyboard, Vincente Archer on upright bass and Josh Dion on drums, presenting an engaging, pop-infused set of evocative bluesy repertoire.

The performance opened with a quizzical, daringly abstract introduction from Scofield, before giving way to a rock-jazz inspired melody, interspersed by satisfying fusion-esque guitar solo interjections. Particularly enjoyable was Scofield’s use of playful, harmonic-based motifs punctuated by virtuosic blues runs, embellishing a piece which presented a clear statement as to the musical setting of the concert.

This opening work was followed by a hugely enjoyable performance of Bob Dylan’s Hey Mr Tambourine Man — a reimagined version of this classic hit that presented a gloriously uplifting aesthetic without ever overstepping into cliché. This piece showcased Jon Cowherd spectacularly, his cooperation with Scofield in reharmonising the song’s harmony stunningly effective, his solo break at the start of the piano solo a joy to behold and one that allowed for a playful and liberated approach to both harmony and rhythm.

A man displaying a vast range of experience and influences, Scofield’s unique voice was effectively communicated throughout the performance, leading the sound of the group and boldly establishing the musical aesthetic of the performance. I particularly enjoyed his choice use of sustained ringing notes and electronic effects in the concert’s third piece — his utilising of distortion, in particular, providing intriguing sonic variation and additional textural interest.

Leaving aside the hugely successful execution of the concert, the choice of repertoire itself provided ample enjoyment, with other popular numbers by Leonard Bernstein, Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia and Neil Young welcome additions expertly interpreted in the context of a jazz festival. Following in the tradition of the Great American Songbook, the concert presented imaginatively and authentically repurposed well-known songs in a blues-influenced jazz idiom, lending the set a fun and playful character, yet one clearly with deep affection for the source material. Of particular note was the treatment of the iconic theme from Bernstein’s Somewhere, giving rise to a beautifully crafted interplay between Scofield and Cowherd, each uniquely interpreting the piece’s haunting melody in turn.

Underpinning the performance throughout was the masterful work of Vincente Archer, his excellent choice of notes and effortless communication with Josh Dion on drums securing both the ensemble’s free approach to repertoire choice and style, and the nevertheless idiomatic bluesy voice presented by the group. His solo offerings, while less common, added greatly to the performance, but it was his pivotal ensemble role that, for me, was most resounding.

The fifth piece in the set featured a virtuosic drum solo from Josh Dion, characterised by a powerful, relentless energy and displaying a rich, sonorous quality of sound. A welcome surprise to those — like myself — initially unfamiliar with his work, were Dion’s vocal contributions later in the set, his authentic gravelly voice matching his outwardly ‘rockish’ aesthetic, and lending an additional dimension to the concert. This was especially enjoyable in Jerry Garcia’s Black Muddy River and in the concert’s electrifying bluesy encore, which featured fantastic use of Fender Rhodes by Cowherd.

In conclusion, the concert was a hugely enjoyable one, the Kalkara festa fireworks across the Grand Harbour during the encore — whilst obviously unknowingly so — a fitting cadence to a performance welcoming one of the jazz world’s most enduring and towering figures. Scofield’s playing was exemplary, exhibiting an ease brought about by a lifetime in music and a willingness to constantly adapt. His guitar solo in the programme’s penultimate number was a masterclass in itself, featuring a hugely creative interpretation of the piece’s melody, offset by imaginative choices of bass-like low notes, before introducing a groove-based bluesy feel indicative of the performance throughout. In short, the Malta Jazz Festival should be applauded for bringing this legend of the genre back to Malta, and I look forward to his next visit.

To find out more about the Malta Jazz Festival, visit the official website