The liner notes for berjam, guitarist John Scofield”s lastest effort, contain the following disclaimer: “John Scofield wants his audience to know that (despite evocative tune titles) he has not used drugs and alcohol since 11 July 1998.”
Scofield probably wouldn”t have felt the need to tell his audience about his old habits if the first song on the album wasn”t named “Acidhead.” Perhaps more importantly, though, Scofield probably wouldn”t have named the first song on berjam “Acidhead” if this album wasn”t intended to be a cheap ploy to increase his stature in the emerging “jam band” niche market. (In the music biz, this type of commercial opportunism is usually euphemistically referred to as “broadening the audience”).
Of course this indiscretion, along with the album”s cheesy cover (which features a faux-Hindu/Buddhist theme complete with a giant, four-armed, cross-legged Scofield), would be excusable had the talents of every performer on berjam not been so unforgivably squandered.
Last year I saw the John Scofield Band put on one of the best live shows I had ever seen at The Ark. Like any good jam band concert, you could hear audience members rehashing the same tired clichs about their experience as they exited out onto Main Street: The band was so “tight” and “organic” that all of the members of the band must have been “telepathic” to achieve such “spontaneity,” and yes, there were almost certainly times when Scofield “touched infinity.” We may also presume that some of my fellow concertgoers have told skeptical friends that they “had to be there” to really understand what those of us at The Ark had heard.
On a superficial level, the John Scofield Band sounds on berjam much like it did at The Ark: sound effects and drum machines are used fairly liberally, for example. What”s missing, however, is any sense of that precious, logically necessary jam band “spontaneity.”
Instead, Scofield treats us to 11 songs that might actually be able to compete with Kraftwerk tunes in a soullessness contest. The lowest point on berjam is an unremarkable 18-second rap by drummer Adam Deitch (“weak rappers wanna flex / Sco rock for miles / and he”s one of the best” take that Biggie Smalls!) that appears (and disappears) inexplicably on “I Brake 4 Monster Booty.”
Seahorse, ekoostik hookah”s newest album, is another story entirely. Here no talent is squandered because ekoostic hookah is a mediocre act that hopefully doesn”t have its ambitions set any higher than playing for uncritical crowds at Hash Bash.
Listening to Seahorse is almost painful. You can tell this band is trying to push some boundaries by experimenting with different genres: “Silver Train” incorporates country, “Find Out” contains a few Metallica-esque heavy metal riffs, “Tree House” (complete with a counting chorus) could be the introduction to a children”s show on PBS, “I Been Down That Road” wants to sound like Elton John and “Highway Home” is a bluegrass song. Unfortunately, when the level of musicianship is so limited, such excursions across the genre-divide are going to be mostly fruitless, and ekoostik hookah fails spectacularly on Seahorse.
The problems on berjam and Seahorse say as much about The John Scofield Band and ekoostic hookah as they do about jam bands in general. Like any other musical genre, the vitality (or lack thereof) we see in the jam bands “movement” is contingent upon how much the musicians who work within that genre innovate and advance the music.
However, innovation requires more than just adding a drum machine, sound effect, rap or heavy metal riff to the mix anyone can do that. To make matters worse, on berjam there are even extraneous performers John Medeski and Karl Denson (whose recent efforts show that they know a little about “broadening the audience” themselves) who rarely contribute anything meaningful to the tracks on which they appear. It comes as no surprise, then, that the best songs on berjam and Seahorse are the ones that try the least to be “innovative.”
Before Scofield and/or ekoostik hookah head into the studio again (and let”s hope that”s not for awhile) they ought to try listening to bands that have actually combined genres successfully. Perhaps the most dramatic contemporary example of this is Masada (John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen and Joey Barron), which has somehow created a hybrid of traditional Klezmer music with Ornette Coleman-style free jazz. Until then, try dropping your money on an album in the “Dick”s Picks” series, Mile Davis” Bitches Brew, Herbie Hancock”s Head Hunters, or Weather Report”s Sweetnighter because despite the efforts of Scofield and ekoostik hookah, that sound still hasn”t been improved on.
Rating: two and a half stars
Rating: one and a half stars