John Scofield’s “Yankee Go Home”, Ronnie Scott’s, London

Putting a jazz edge on music from Dylan to Bernstein, Yankee Go Home is the kind of bar band any jazz fan should be happy to run into

John Scofield Yankee Go Home at Teatro Navalge, Moena, Italy, 16 March 2024. Clockwise from top left - Scofield; Scofield & Josh Dion; Scofield, Jon Cowherd; Vicente Archer. Photos by Danilo Codazzi

In terms of delivering the unexpected, guitarist John Scofield has been at the front of the field for so many years and across so many jazz epochs and styles – going back to his 1970s gig with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, forward through time with Billy Cobham, leading 70s/80s small groups on the Enja label, bringing bebop for the first time to the guitar stool in Miles Davis’s electric bands (aside from the brief appearance of George Benson on Miles In The Sky), on to his groundbreaking electric groups on Gramavision and through to the acoustic years with Joe Lovano – that it’s hard to see what he can have left to generate the sound of surprise, but at Ronnie Scott’s on 25 March he did, over and over again.

The setting – reprises of American pop, folk and rock (hence the project title “Yankee Go Home”) – didn’t suggest much surprise, but – a token of the creativity of the group – surprise lurked around the corner of just about every bar. There were familiar Scofield clichés, but they were ones he invented years ago and as noted of Charlie Parker, the surprise lay in the time and place in which the licks were recycled. Aside from that, the playing of the rest of the band and the unity of the entire enterprise was outstanding – another, pleasant, surprise.

The 72-year-old Scofield says of Yankee Go Home “The concept is to cover Americana, rock hits and jazzed out folk songs plus some of my originals written in that vein. I’m reconnecting with a lot of my teenaged rock ’n’ roll roots.” The presence of a pianist named Jon Cowherd seemed all of a piece with bucolic brief.

They came out burning with an abstract Latin-rock feel on a title whose name escaped me. As with so many of the pieces, many of the improvised highlights appeared in the ostinato modal outro – give Scofield one chord and he’ll bring it alive with his distinctive inside-outside lines. So he did, one moment playing a bluesy bend, the next a polytonal cascade. The band sound was punchy yet compressed – perhaps a feature of how Ronnie’s handles volume. In this case, Scofield had his own sound man, Bill Strode, whom he made a point of naming, probably as a key member of the outfit.

The beautiful wistfulness of Wichita Lineman followed. This might be a country-style pop tune – almost a single-handed embodiment of Americana – but its composer, Jimmy Webb, has acknowledged his love of chords and his concomitant affinity with jazz. Wichita has the harmonic ingenuity that attracts jazz players. The piece ended with another modal ad-lib which in fact turned out to be a segue into Pharoah Sanders’ The Creator Has A Master Plan over which Scofield stretched out at his wittiest best. That wit isn’t genteel, but grounded in the macabre juxtaposition of the everyday (typically the pentatonic) and the harmonically outrageous, in Scofield’s case with the outrage piled on outrage. As an early critique (Downbeat, c. 1983) of his playing observed, he isn’t above “kicking over the metaphorical beer bottle”. A classic example of this is the wild but jazz-fuelled rock-out of the title track of the 1981 Shinola, a shard of glass jabbed into the end of a set of relatively sedate Jim Hall style reflections; or the outlandish double-stopped bends on the tritone he chucks in at around 2:03 into this 80s solo with Miles Davis on That’s What Happened.

Dayton – which place, perhaps noting the English origin of many things Yankee, Scofield said was “probably just up the road here somewhere” – was a funky riff developing a pleasingly swampy menace in the organ solo section. After some undemonstrative but potent solos demonstrating the controlled power of the band there was some excellent drum invention over an ostinato. Then came Bernstein’s Somewhere, a tune rivalling Wichita for pathos. Scofield tiptoed through the theme with the bass until the band joined to transmute it into a country-rock ballad. More beer was spilt in another tasty modal coda.

A funky ninth-chord groove introduced the next tune – but what was it? Something was familiar, but not enough to reveal the name. It was another good band arrangement, breaking out the drums in the groove for a solo. Should Yankees go home? Maybe. The US is a land of extremes, the downside showing itself in radical conservatism, but there is a powerful upside and this unique agglomeration of east, west and south could only have happened in America. These Yankees can probably stay. Suddenly, the theme emerged – Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That. Then it was one chord out again and “some notes that weren’t in the book” – thus Scofield’s entirely unsatisfactory 1983 explanation to me of how he played outside.

Ironically, in an hour-plus of surprises, a surprise was announced. Scofield introduced the Grateful Dead’s Black Muddy River – but sung, very well, by drummer Josh Dion. With the vocals and the country-rock feel, one could have been in an American roadhouse, but facing a band that could hustle jazz, almost unnoticed, into anything.

Ronnie’s runs a tight ship to get the 5:30 house out and the 8:30 in, so one doesn’t expect an encore, but there was one, Tambourine Man, and the band didn’t stint on length. Once again they organically blurred the lines between rock and jazz. Scofield, soloing, went out and stayed out over the changes, before dropping the tune back in. Pianist Cowherd introduced Bob Dylan to a little taste of McCoy Tyner before Vicente Archer tore off a muscular bass solo – on acoustic, as throughout the evening. Speaking to me later, Archer said the band had been going a couple of years, and hadn’t yet recorded. It should. Every jazz collection needs a bar band as good as this.

Ronnie Scott’s club was unable to supply photos of the Scofield gig by their in-house photographer, but JJ was lucky enough to come across the tremendous Italian photographer Danilo Codazzi, whose evocative photos above were taken during the Yankee Go Home gig at the Dolomiti Ski Jazz festival on 16 March 2024 at Teatro Navalge in Moena, Italy.

John Scofield’s “Yankee Go Home” featuring Scofield (elg); Vicente Archer (b); Jon Cowherd (p, kyb); Josh Dion (d, v). Ronnie Scott’s, first house, 25 March 2024.