MUSIC REVIEW: Béla Fleck/John Scofield’s Combo 66 @ Tri-C JazzFest by Claudia Taller

Fri 6/28

After a hiatus of several years from the Tri-C JazzFest, I arrived at Playhouse Square last Friday during a rainstorm. The outside festivities and high school student band performances were halted while people found shelter under the eaves and awnings. Fortunately, we had tickets to see Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and John Scofield’s Combo 66 at the State Theatre.

John Scofield’s Combo opened with big, gorgeous sound, each instrument standing out crisp and on its own while also skillfully blending with the other instruments. It was mesmerizing from the beginning. The group synchronized without effort, the beat direct. It was the sound of cocktails and nightclubs in Boston or New York, and I hankered for a dirty gin martini in the dark.

Scofield’s smooth jazz guitar soothed, jammed, made you want to move. The pianist’s fingers peeled across the keys, and I was back in the Jazz Age. Towards the end of the concert, Scofield took the time to tell us he still has a picture of a girl he used to know, just a girl, you know? And then we were listening to a soulful rendition of “Just a Girl I Used to Know,” and it felt sexy, dreamy, bluesy, and nostalgic. The band jammed out and led into a delicate  solo electric guitar before revving up to a crescendo.

I’m glad John Scofield brought Gerald Clayton, Bill Steward and Vicente Archer together to celebrate his 66th year by playing 12 original compositions. How grand it is that they teamed up with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones featuring Victor Wooten, Roy “Futureman” Wooten and Howard Levy at Tri-C JazzFest.

Acoustic banjo and harmonica equals great jazz? Yes, it does, when it’s Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. The foursome’s been playing together for 30 years, and for some period of time, we heard their music every week when we watched the television show Northern Exposure. The music is eclectic, unexpected, innovative, and energetic, a jazz jam band.

Howard Levy’s harmonica was excellent, a great way to open the show, and then the rest of the guys had their turns. The music was lively and true, with the harmonica and piano joined by Roy Wooten’s drums, Victor Wooten’s bass and Fleck’s banjo. The bassist is a showman who takes his instrument to the edge. Staccato banjo picking came to the fore, and then the harmonica took the lead with the melody. Drumitarist Futureman sometimes took over the show as he drummed and played guitar at the same time. But then so did Roy Wooten’s drums and Victor Wooten’s bass — they’re all such fine musicians and each stands on his own.

Howard Levy seemed like a genius as he moved skillfully from piano to harmonica, and then the strings came in and pulled down the energy, mellowed it out, and the music became romantic before the banjo overrode it all with an Irish riff. No one plays a five-string banjo as well as Béla Fleck. They then played “Mars Needs Women” from their first album, and brought us full circle to what they’re playing today. On their new album, Rocket Science, their first recording in two decades, we can hear more jazz (mixed with a bit of country and bluegrass and African music and folk) created by this musical group with its unique sound.

I never took my eyes off the stage. It was over too soon. Out on the street, the rain has stopped. We’re dazed and dazzled by the lights and the voices and the music on stage, the smell of wood burning from the barbeque food truck. What did we just experience? I think to myself, “How can I describe the indescribable?”

[Written by Claudia Taller]


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