John Scofield Gets “The Bends” at UCSD

Scofield's Uberjam Band had them dancing in the aisles

Brian Ross and the folks at UCSD’s The Loft have a knack for mixing things up when curating many of their concerts. Such was the case on April 13, when they brought the world-renowned guitarist John Scofield into town and matched him with a terrific local ensemble (Mostly Modified Monk) led by saxophonist David Borgo into a near sell-out situation at the Price Center Ballroom.

Mostly Modified Monk: Borgo, a professor at UCSD, assembled a crack group of mostly graduate students who are poised to make their mark. Tobin Chodos may be San Diego’s best-kept piano secret, and bassist Kyle Motl is already a daring and dangerous improviser. Only drummer Kevin Higuchi came from outside the university, and he’s been a consistently exciting and original player on the San Diego scene since arriving here from Santa Cruz last year.

The group opened with “Little Niles” in five (odd meters are their raison d’etre), with Higuchi laying down a bed of elliptical time, Borgo’s tenor saxophone coursing through the changes, Chodos tearing up the keyboard and Motl balancing amazing velocity with turgid wholenotes. Borgo’s remarkable ease with multiphonics came shining through in a sped-up version of “Ask Me Now,” and Chodos dramatic melodic energy was well served on his own “Salmon Up,” where his nervous fragments churned below Borgo’s snaking soprano.

John Scofield Uberjam Band: Scofield has always been a jazz player whose rock influences were obvious – with the Uberjam Band, he transforms into a rock guitarist whose jazz influences are considerably less pronounced. Premiums were placed on volume, backbeat and long, (sometimes ponderous and meandering) jams with a “party-down” vibe.

Scofield began the first piece with considerable promise as he improvised a rubato nod to “Acknowledgement” from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which eventually morphed into an unannounced title from his latest disc. Bassist Andy Hess and drummer Tony Mason trained in on a groove, yet they were flexible enough to turn on a dime when Scofield changed directions. Rhythm guitar/ electronics man Avi Bortnick was the most consistently engaging player of the evening. His samples often provided an eerie shimmering backdrop, and his few solos were masterful examples of funk guitar, and tastefully brief.

The zenith for me came on “Al Green Song,” where the groove coalesced and Scofield dug in for his best solo – although throughout the evening, his over-reliance on bent notes was wearying. Bortnick stole the show with a wicked Nile Rogers display of chord-based improvisation.

It was gratifying to see so many young, college-age students in the audience, and they were definitely picking up what Scofield was laying down -- especially the contingent closest to me who danced in the aisles until security eventually convinced them to take their seats.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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