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John Scofield "Piety Street" Album Review

Updated on May 26, 2009

"Piety Street"

Part One

Over the course of his three-plus decades of playing jazz, guitarist John Scofield has played it all.

As a sideman, Scofield moved seamlessly between post-bop work with Miles Davis, to free jazz with Charles Mingus, on to hard-bop with Joe Henderson and later, avant-garde jazz with Medeski, Martin and Wood.

As bandleader, Scofield dipped his toes into all the above waters, and also added a liberal dose of fusion to the cocktail, creating his own sonic soundscape.

And now you can add Crescent City jazz to Scofield’s lengthy resume, as well.

Crescent City jazz with a most definite gospel flavor to it.

Scofield’s newest disc, Piety Street, is a collection of gospel tunes, ranging from standards to classics, to even a couple of originals penned by Scofield himself.

And by the sounds of things on Piety Street, Scofield has been checking out some of the Holmes Brothers’ funky take on traditional gospel music.

The disc, named after the famed Piety Street Studios in New Orleans where it was recorded, is chock full of some of the funkiest players the city has to offer.

Jon Cleary, a key member of Bonnie Raitt’s band, in addition to leading his own ensemble, handles piano and organ duties, along with the bulk of the vocals on Piety Street.

The fantastic George Porter Jr., who helped invent New Orleans funk as a member of The Meters, lays down his thick, chunky bass grooves on the project, while drummer Ricky Fataar (another member of Raitt’s group) and percussionist Shannon Powell (Harry Connick Orchestra) add their own spices to the gumbo. New Orleans session vocalist John Boutte’ was also a member of the aptly-named Piety Street Band.

And then there’s Scofield. The slick-fingered, veteran guitar virtuoso.

His guitar sound is instantly recognizable and as always, it alternates between a light, lilting summer breeze and a red-hot stinging laser beam. Scofield can count himself a member of the limited number of axe-slingers that always seem to have their tone dialed in from the get-go, making you feel at ease – like you’re among old friends – whenever he rips off a lush lick

John Scofield Live

Part Two

 

Make no mistake, Scofield can burn with the fastest guitarists around. But on Piety Street, he pulls back and doesn’t go full-steam-ahead just because he can. He’s in a loose, uncomplicated mood and rides that for the duration of Piety Street. Which serves the songs well.

Because at the heart of all good gospel lies a song. Pure and simple.

Scofield, along with his Piety Street mates, pay due accord to the songs on this disc. The songs may be slightly more jazzy, a touch more funky, but they’re still gospel tunes.

Piety Street kicks off with an excellent version of Dorothy Love Coates’ “That’s Enough,” long a classic in the genre.

It doesn’t take the band long to start testifying and the standard “(Sometimes I Feel Like A) Motherless Child” is swamp-gospel at its best.

The cut has a real Blind Boys of Alabama feel to it, especially as Cleary pleads, “sometimes I feel like freedom is near, but we’re so far from home.”

Changing things up a bit, “Motherless Child” ends with a cool instrumental coda that jitters along reggae style, as Cleary hammers out some deep funk from his Hammond organ.

The Rev. James Cleveland’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” is a good, old-fashioned, hand-clapping sing-along that would fit a Sunday morning like a hand fits a glove.

Scofield eases into “Just a Little While to Stay Here,” with great restraint, giving the cut a slow-simmering blues intro.

As long as Scofield has been in the business, he knows that when you’ve got a roster full of big guns like Cleary and Porter, you use them.

Cleary seems really suited to sing the material on Piety Street and although his voice is essentially built for gritty funk, he hits it out of the park on Piety Street. Almost tender in his delivery at times, Cleary was the perfect choice for lead vocals on this project.

And Porter, as he always is no matter the situation, is rock-steady on the low end, but at the same time is also funky enough to keep this from being the same predictable versions of these songs we’ve heard time and time again.

Boutte’s shining moment comes on Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Never Turn Back,” a tune of independence he sings with real conviction.

One of Scofield’s own compositions, “It’s a Big Army” is also a highlight of Piety Street. Jumping along like a funky, uptempo 12-bar blues, Powell’s tambourine work shimmys and shakes the proceedings along to the strains of “I’m a Solider in the army of the Lord.” Scofield bobs and weaves through the song with blasts of his patented harmonic pinches.

For die-hard fans of his, it should come as no surprise that the Berklee College of Music educated Scofield could pull a batch of gospel tunes out of his hat and somehow make them sound unique.

For die-hard gospel fans, it should come as no surprise that the power of spiritual music has pulled another star into its orbit.

And that makes Piety Street a win-win for fans of both.

Mr. Scofield for sale

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