John Scofield at the Dakota, 9/18/12

Scofield, Steward, and Swallow -- feelin' blue at the Dakota.
Scofield, Steward, and Swallow -- feelin' blue at the Dakota.

John Scofield Trio
The Dakota, Minneapolis
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

John Scofield opened his late-night Tuesday set at the Dakota with an original tune called "Final Blues," vowing to the crowd afterward that it was the last time they'd hear him make the guitar cry as if his woman just left him and he was hopping a train to nowhere in particular. He closed the night by ripping Clapton-esque blues riffs for the better part of 10 minutes, demonstrating that despite what he says, the blues will live at least as long as he does.

Scofield's trio features a rhythm section of 71-year-old bass legend Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. Both are jazz musicians at least as unconventional as Scofield -- Swallow because he is one of the few renown jazz bassists to play an electric bass with a pick, and Stewart because he is one of the few renown jazz drummers to play with a rock n' roll stick grip.

The night's set list was as eclectic as the musicians on stage, featuring a handful of Scofield's more obscure original compositions, blues and jazz standards (including a Charlie Parker tune), a funky modal jam, and even (gasp!) a country standard about a girl Scofield "knew a long time ago" and has never quite been able to forget. (His wedding band suggests he was might've been speaking of the proverbial Woman rather than a woman in particular.)

Scofield's performance had the flying-by-seats-of-pants feel you'd expect at a hole-in-the-wall jazz club where patrons are only kinda paying attention to the music. He'd turn to Swallow and Stewart, tell them what tune was next, and away they'd go. In one case, he informed Swallow that the next tune is in the key of B-flat as he counted it off. Swallow, in particular, seemed less than completely familiar with some of Scofield's newer originals, squinting intently to read charts as Scofield and Stewart improvised away. But that's jazz -- if you want meticulous and premeditated, you're barking up the wrong genre.

Scofield, Swallow, and Stewart are each long-established jazz superstars with unique musical vocabularies that have been honed over the decades. For these guys, playing difficult jazz tunes and sounding great while doing so is like breathing or eating -- they just do it, more or less unthinkingly. So did they provide an enjoyable set of music last night at the Dakota? Of course. Was it the most inspired performance of their careers or one that'll be remembered years down the line by either the musicians or the audience? Probably not. But that's alright. Sometimes, you're just in the mood to hear some great musicians plug in, call whatever standard comes to mind, and play the blues like it's the last time.

Critic's notebook: The September calendar at the Dakota is and has been frickin' amazing. The month started with Pat Metheny, continued with Marcus Miller and Scofield, and still has the Chick Corea/Gary Burton duet in store before October rolls around. That's a month of jazz that can stack up against any at any club in the world.

Tuesday night's crowd wasn't nearly as engaged with Scofield as folks were a couple weeks back when Metheny played. This probably had to do with the fly-by-seats-of-pants vibe mentioned earlier in the review -- patrons seemed kinda torn between chatting with each other and letting the music serve as background sound and really investing themselves in the performance. Applause after most of the solos felt more obligatory than enthusiastic, but that didn't necessarily indicate that people weren't enjoying the set.

Finally, it needs to be mentioned that Bill Steward is an absolutely amazing drummer. His limb independence -- the ability to play distinctly syncopated rhythms with each of his hands and feet at the same time -- is unparalleled. And Swallow's sparse playing really suits Stewart's busier approach well. Let's hope this trio stays together after they get off the road and records some of Scofield's new originals.

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