What We Do (Blue Note)
John Scofield Quartet

By Bob Bahr

The truth is, John Scofield albums are interesting because the guitarist has a knack for assembling great sidemen. Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Marc Johnson, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, and John Pattitucci have all appeared on Scofield recordings. And on What We Do, Scofield has brought in three people at the absolute top of their game: the lively bassist Dennis Irwin, the reactive energy of drummer Bill Stewart, and the incomparable saxophonist Joe Lovano. Paired with Scofield's versatile guitar approach, this quartet seems prepared to conquer the jazz world.

While this quartet may be the group to do it, this isn't the album that's going to do it. True, What We Do has the compositions, the solos and the interaction to make for gratifying repeat listenings, but the restrictions that hover around these nine cuts keep it grounded on terra firma.

Let's start with the mix, which is kind-spirited only to The Man, John Scofield. His sound is respectfully accommodated, his guitar is two notches louder than anything else on this disc, save the occasional smack at a floor tom. Lovano's sax serves like a backup vocalist, echoing Scofield or laying a pad for Scofield's guitar licks. Stewart, one of the most interesting drummers alive today, is heard clearest when he's clocking the beat on the ride cymbal. The sound mix suggests that he is there merely to keep time.

Irwin gets no worse treatment here than bassists get anywhere. In fact, the sound of his rich, mellow upright is nurtured, although you could count the number of true solos on one thumb. This is Scofield's album.

And that decision makes for an even, yet disappointing, effort. On one hand, the songs Scofield wrote for What We Do are interesting. "Camp Out" features a fractured, ascending melody that could be labeled a post-modern collage if Monk hadn't been doing the same thing 60 years ago. Stewart seems to enjoy playing on this tune.

"Why Nogales?" features the rhythm section in a unique way, with Lovano and Scofield playing the melody (which sounds like a Spanish folk song) over and over while the rhythm section craftily changes the feel each time with varying rhythms and approaches. Deep within, Scofield takes a lengthy journey, then lays off for a spotlight on Irwin. The bassist threatens to run off with the tune until Scofield and Lovano reel him in with the melody after less than a minute. Stewart shines with some independent thinking behind the Gretsch kit.

"What They Did" and "Call 911" are bebop to the core. "Little Walk," the opener, ably displays Scofield's flexible technique, encompassing fusion, bop, and Frisell-like weirdness in a solo that moves from moody to tangled fire. Lovano answers with a solo that is drenched in so much echo, you believe that producer Scofield thinks saxes sound best when heard from the neighboring fire escape.

At moments on other cuts, Scofield seems to join other jazz guitarists in chasing Metheny's shadow, yet never venturing into the Brazilian-pop-jazz flatlands that Metheny currently resides in. His solos are not derivative, nor are they cliched or dissonant. So why aren't they interesting?

A sampler of intriguingly diverse tunes and a personal, "chamber jazz" feel make What We Do a first-class release. Scofield's technically proficient yet unremarkable electric guitar work, and the guitar-centric sound mix on the album burden it with unrealized potential. See these guys live when fewer rules are applied.