Scofield’s jam-band hits highs and lows

There were several times during John Scofield’s Uberjam concert on Friday night when I was convinced that he must be the funkiest man in the world. The intricate and subtle layering of his grooves and Avi Bortnick’s samples, all underneath his soulful and jazzy melodic guitar lines, were truly to die for. I only wish, however, that Scofield could have maintained this level of consummate groove for the whole show. Instead, the performance left me with a mixed vibe at the end; intense and wildly funky for a good chunk of it (especially in the first set) but dull and lacking in energy at times, the Uberjam was perhaps not indicative of the guitar-master at his finest.

This is not to say that the concert didn’t make for a fun evening. As the second headlining act in the annual Williamstown Jazz Festival, Scofield proved to be an interesting and exciting complement to the more traditional jazz acts featured throughout the week. Also, as usual, MASS MoCA did an excellent job of setting the scene; the mood and lighting for the show were just right, and we also had ample room to shimmy and get our groove on up close and personal beside the performers. This was, after all, an Uberjam Dance Party.

It was clear from the performance that Scofield is a virtuosic guitarist, capable of finding beauty in simple, minimalist funk rhythms and also laying down impassioned, more athletic riffs and jazz motifs. His band was right there with him throughout; drummer Adam Deitsch was especially impressive for the variety of styles and rhythmic feels he was able to conjure up over the course of the evening.

The Uberjam started off with a bang. Off its first album (the self-titled Uberjam), “Acidhead” began with an Indian raga sample and slowly built up to a subtle yet powerful funk jam. With the point of a finger, the rest of the band would drop out for Bortnick, whose skillful yet understated rhythm-playing alongside his computer-generated background provided the perfect foil for the more densely layered jam. In this long but wonderfully varied opening piece, which morphed into his second tune “Snap Crackle Pop,” Scofield covered all his bases and displayed a variety of harmonic and melodic ideas, while his rhythm section showcased their keen musical imagination and sharp sense for textural variety.

Scofield’s first set continued to impress me. “Animal Farm,” also off Uberjam, once again displayed a really intricate and creative blend of computer sampling and groove-based jamming. “Whatcha See is Whatcha Get,” from the band’s forthcoming second album, Up All Night, was my favorite jam of the evening. In this piece, the band managed to take a simple jazz progression and infuse it with such energy and nuance that it gradually built to a huge crescendo and payoff at the end. It also showcased Scofield at his best, soloing with a mix of fast and furious jazz lines intermixed with more gritty riffs.

In contrast to the generally high level of jamming and musicianship displayed in the first set, however, most of the band’s second set was flat and failed to reproduce the same degree of collective energy and funkiness. Scofield might have been aiming for a more mellow sequence during this part of the show, but with a couple exceptions, he was not able to keep it nearly as interesting as the first set. Instead, much of the second hour was filled with more run-of-the-mill jam-band material, giving us much less to latch on to and dance to, and falling short of the more subtle and complex arranging of which we knew the band was capable.

One highlight of the latter half of the show, breaking from the monotony a bit, was “Watch Out for Po-Po,” which required vocal audience participation and returned to the more meaningful grooviness of the first set. Thankfully, the set also picked up again for the finale, a fast-paced, intensely spirited and forceful modal jam that culminated in the same kind of satisfying musical payoff we got so often earlier on. Again, it’s just a shame that it took the group so long to get back to that level.

There’s no doubt that Scofield is a musical genius, with lots of interesting ideas for how to push the jam-band genre (rapidly becoming stale and overdone, all in the shadow of Medeski, Martin and Wood) in new and increasingly funky directions with his intricate integration of computer-generated backgrounds. Along with Bortnick, Deitch and bassist Jesse Murphy – all incredibly gifted on their respective instruments – Scofield is producing indisputably fun, funky, danceable material infused with a variety of fresh sounds.

At MASS MoCA, we definitely got a taste of what Uberjam is all about, yet ultimately not enough to convince me that Scofield’s latest project is quite as musical and original as many of his earlier ones. An unabashedly creative player and composer who has consistently proved capable of adapting to a variety of styles, Scofield will undoubtedly remain at the forefront of the funk-jazz scene and continue to push the envelope forward and impress his audiences with his freely flowing grooves and melodic ideas. There is no doubt in my mind that Scofield will keep going and will not rest in his quest to consummate all that is soulful and funky in Uberland.