Saturday, September 24, 2016

John Scofield - 1992 "Grace Under Pressure"

Grace Under Pressure is a studio album by jazz musician John Scofield, featuring guitarist Bill Frisell as a co-lead voice.

ohn Scofield and Bill Frisell, two of the most distinctive guitarists of the 1990s (they previously fronted Marc Johnson's band Bass Desires,) team up on this quartet date with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Joey Baron. While Scofield contributed all ten originals, Frisell with his wide variety of sounds and eccentric solos often comes close to stealing the show altogether. Five of the ten numbers add a three-piece brass section for color. The interplay between the two very different yet complementary guitarists is notable. 

Fantastic John Scofield set. This was my first John Scofield purchase after having had some exposure to him by way of Jaco Pastorius' instructional bass video and John Patitucci's solo album Sketchbook.

Overall, I think this is a fantastic album. John's writing is sometimes traditional, sometimes clever -- the opening track, "You Bet," is the first song I think I would ever describe as 'fun' -- but always smart and clean and easy to follow and listen to.

I get the idea that John was thinking outside of the box on this album, owing to his having Bill Frisell (guitar), Charlie Haden (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) back him, along with a small brass section on a few of the tunes. These guys each bring their own distinctive styles to the table and the result is a smorgasbord of rich sonic textures and unabashed musical adventure.

For those familiar with John's work before or after this disc, the music may surprise you. The first three numbers are fairly straightforward and are pretty much straight ahead jazz, but gears quickly shift when we reach "Scenes From A Marriage." Once the head is stated, Charlie and Joey kick into overdrive and John just goes with the flow and keeps right up with them even though he probably has no idea where they may be going. John wraps up his solo and Bill takes the cake by beautifully playing a variation on the main theme while Charlie and Joey switch to a more free jazz backing.

Then Bill stomps on the gas and switches to his distorted sound and provides his own loops in the background. He gets crazy with the theme and then brings it back down a notch by providing an ethereal ambience while John restates the head. Charlie and Joey then break off to do some free jazz and then the whole gang comes back in to wrap the tune up.

"Twang" is a blues-inflected swinger and "Pat Me" -- a nod to Pat Metheny -- gives Bill the chance to showcase his acoustic skills. "Pretty Out" is musical mayhem waiting to happen and Bill certainly doesn't disappoint on this tune, either. This song, however, may wear on some people and even John has a hard time getting the rest of the guys back on the same sheet to restate the head. They finally do it and Bill's ending loop -- which fades out to end the track -- is picture perfect and is wonderfully accentuated by Charlie's unchractersically laid-back bass with John's overchorused chords floating above them both. The mental picture I get just from the sound of it is like picking up a far-away radio broadcast with an old transistor radio.

Up next is "Bill Me" and gives Bill some room to stretch out. After that is "Same Axe." It's a short tune built around a typically Scofield A-A-B-A riff and both guitarists solo simultaneously before restating the head and ending the tune. "Unique New York" is the quietest tune of the bunch -- and the only one with a tongue-twister as a title -- and as the closing song on the album, it's definitely in sharp contrast to most of the rest of the tunes in this set, kind of like a sonic sorbet to cleanse the palate.

All in all, I think this a classic disc. While John almost seems to be overshadowed by the likes of Bill and Charlie at times, with their preponderance for running out into left field, he manages to rein them in when needed and is actually pushed by their musical experimentation to try some new and different stuff himself.

A must-have for either the serious Scofield fan or the serious Frisell fan.

I'm surprised that there are only a handful of reviews here. In my opinion, Scofield's CDs of the early 90s will someday be considered jazz classics. ("Time on My Hands", "Meant to Be", "What We Do", and this one.) The writing is top-notch, original, and quite often brilliant. The playing is inspired, cohesive, and virtuosic. The line-ups are amazing. On this album, Bill Frissell is just the perfect complement to Scofield's playing -- smooth to Sco's angular. His solo on "You Bet" is one of those rare pieces of improvisation that sounds truly composed. Charlie Haden is, well, Charlie Haden. Superb. Joey Baron, on drums, is a great choice to glue together these quirky tunes and musicians -- he's a very, very interesting (and excellent) player. Scofield is, as usual, totally in the pocket.
The tunes here are, to be honest, not overall my favorite of Scofield's. "You Bet" is brilliant; "Bill Me" as well. Sco's foray into horn arrangements is a nice touch, but strikes me as experimental here, and overlayed rather than integral. (A bit tenuous, too, come to think of it.) I think he's at his best when he's more minimal in his arrangements.
If you're not familiar with Scofield's work of the early 90s, check out "Time on My Hands", and if you like that, definitely give this album a spin.  

Track listing

All tracks composed by John Scofield

    "You Bet"
    "Grace Under Pressure"
    "Honest I Do"
    "Scenes From A Marriage"
    "Pat Me"
    "Pretty Out"
    "Bill Me"
    "Same Axe"
    "Unique New York"


    John Scofield - electric guitar
    Bill Frisell - electric & acoustic guitars
    Charlie Haden - bass
    Joey Baron - drums

On 3,5,6,8,10:

    Randy Brecker - flugelhorn
    Jim Pugh - trombone
    John Clark - French horn