Review: John Scofield/Dirty Loops, Montreux Jazz Festival 2014

Midway through the Überjam set, a side door opens to my right and Dirty Loops file in to take their seats. Scofield is in full flow; head back, eyes closed, mouth falling open and closing absently, as if chewing on his tremolo-tinged holds like they’re strands of toffee. When the Swedish YouTube sensations file out again just two numbers later I almost feel like stopping them. They would have done well to stick around.

Some sketchy vocals and less-than-convincing originals aside, their uncompromisingly heavy jazz-pop fusion made for a strong first half. Apocalyptic reimaginings of Justin Bieber, Adele, and Lady Gaga shot through with falsetto wails, throaty bass lines, explosive drum breaks, and crackling electronics, whipped up the crowd and saw the group return for two encores. But though their energy and commitment couldn’t be faulted, they tried to do too much and often overstretched themselves. Grooves were cluttered, transitions between sections seemed a little forced and, on the whole, the quality of their writing and arranging didn’t match their considerable talents as performers.

Not so Scofield’s quartet (pictured left) whose set of originals, taken from the first Überjam record (2002) and the follow-up, Überjam Deux (2013), was as flawless in its conception as it was in execution. The ensemble play with all the freedom you’d expect from a jam session, changing gear on a whim and keeping things flexible, yet it never gets boring or feels lacking in direction. In part this is thanks to the wide-ranging references. Tracks like Curtis Knew andAl Green Song were nods to Motown, while elsewhere there were snatches of country music, rock, reggae, and dissonant electronica. Textures and forms were similarly varied and provided the perfect platform for imaginative improvisations.

Scofield featured on almost every track but it felt as if he could have played another 10 sets before running out of ideas. Meanwhile drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Andy Hess kept the grooves locked down and Arvi Bortnick (author of much of the group’s material) added layers of choppy rhythm guitar, watery electronics, distorted modem-like effects and dubby laptop work, editing and altering the ensemble’s sound throughout the gig.

But perhaps most impressive of all was how much the group didn’t play. Melodies and grooves, from the drum and bass-tinged funk of Snap Crackle Pop to the shuffling blues of Boogie Stupid, were simple and pared down, free from unnecessary flash and all the tighter and more engaging for it. So much was implied without being stated explicitly, whether in Scofield’s lines, Bortnick’s masterful comping, Higgins’s blistering drum breaks, or the understated polyphonic brilliance of Hess’s bass. It was this minimalism and maturity, more than anything else, that set the Überjam Band apart. For all their talent, it’s something that Dirty Loops still need to acquire, a lesson they’ve yet to learn.

Photography 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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