Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ****
Overall Enjoyment: ****
A Go Go, John Scofield’s first collaboration with Medeski Martin & Wood (1998), didn’t list the younger musicians on the front cover, but their performance was vital to the album’s musical success. Scofield was already an established jazz guitarist known for memorable, accessible tunes that nonetheless challenged listeners, but MMW added some jam-band looseness and upped the already high funk quotient of Scofield’s music. The result was a triumph -- fun and brainy at once.
The quartet returned in 2006 with Out Louder, credited to Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood. This album retained some of the funkiness of A Go Go, but added the occasional free-jazz experiments MMW engages in in their Blue Note releases. Unsettling and dissonant in spots, it kept the bluesy undercurrent that had made A Go Go so enjoyable.
Juice is the group’s newest disc, and it returns them to the steady grooves and hummable melodies of their first outing. Eddie Harris’s “Sham Time” starts things off with a series of James Brown-style guitar chords, which Scofield has always played with ease. Billy Martin’s thumping kick drum immediately grounds the track in solid time, while his fluid snare and cymbal work add color. John Medeski states the melody on his Hammond B-3, Scofield answering him with short, sharply etched lines. Medeski’s solo flies along, with solid backing from Scofield and a bouncing bass line from Chris Wood.
“North London” is a rock-based vamp similar to Scofield’s work on his Bump (2000). As good as that disc was, it sometimes felt too fussed-over. MMW give Scofield the freedom to loosen up -- here, when he plays something that rocks, it feels more relaxed and natural. For his part, Scofield gives MMW a little more structure, and the balance highlights everyone’s strengths.
“Louis the Shoplifter” lets the band deconstruct “Louie Louie,” throwing in a bossa nova section that blends with the old rock’n’roll chestnut and adds a bit of humor. The four also take fresh looks at three other 1960s classics. They play it straight in “Light My Fire,” Medeski turning in a terrific solo that captures the spirit of the Doors. Scofield’s bent notes in a reggae-tinged “Sunshine of Your Love” are soulful, with an almost vocal quality, and his playful use of delay gives the track an expansive feel. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” closes the disc on a gospel note, its slightly plaintive tone suggesting that things haven’t changed enough since 1963, when the song first appeared.
Chris Wood’s bass playing throughout is essential in keeping the tracks well grounded, but it also reinforces the arrangements in key ways. His carefully considered slow notes in “The Times They Are A-Changin’” underscore the song’s mournfulness, and his elastic playing in “Juicy Lucy” pulls the tune together and keeps it focused. Billy Martin is also acutely responsive to the needs of each song. Medeski, Martin, and Wood are so attuned to each other, anticipating each other’s moves, that Scofield can plug in and play with a loose confidence that makes the music flow.
The recording catches the tone and attack of Scofield’s guitar, and gives Medeski’s Hammond B-3 a grand, full sound. Martin’s kick drums hit you without pushing you against the wall, and Wood’s full-bodied bass lines are well sustained. Juice doesn’t take the experimental flights heard on Out Louder and the group’s live set, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind (2011), but it doesn’t play down to the listener. It’s smart, witty, and a worthwhile addition to this group’s work.
. . . Joseph Taylor