The prospect of hearing a new John Scofield album is often an exciting event, and there are those music fans that still expect the gleaming unknown from the virtuoso guitarist’s every release. Piety Street (CD) may leave those dedicated folks a bit underwhelmed, as it is somewhat predictable, but there’s plenty of gospel gold to be found nonetheless.
A collection of traditional and gospel standards, along with a couple of Scofield’s own compositions, Piety Street never wanders too far into the jazz and bop realms that are so familiar to him. It is simply a record with soul-stirring songs and reasonably impassioned performances from a massively talented six-piece band.
The things that will keep this album from being truly special among the year’s releases are perception and expectation. Most listeners are going to take one look at the lineup and want – or expect – to hear these guys jam. They dabble in the slightest amount of instrumental voodoo, but it’s good to know what you’re getting before delving into this bluesy, New Orleans-inspired affair. There’s something about George Porter Jr’s byline on an album that makes one anticipate a bit more funk and good times.
As smoldering and righteous as the band sounds on “The Old Ship of Zion” and other spiritual classics, you know which direction the ship is headed all the while. With versatile vocalist John Boutte, the enigmatic Jon Cleary on keys and vocals, rock-solid session man Ricky Fataar on drums, Porter Jr. on bass, and Shannon Powell on percussion, Scofield makes the tunes his own, stretching them as far as their timeless forms will allow.
In the end, though, the songs are what they are. “Ninety Nine and a Half,” which drips with Scofield’s liquid guitar work, is a mighty impressive blues number, and the same can be said for each track. But to truly enjoy this album, it’s best to think of Scofield as part of the group and not the fearless improviser and composer that normally manifests when his name comes up.
After listening to the album and enjoying it immensely, I couldn’t brush away the gnawing suspicion that i wouldn’t be returning to Piety Street any time soon. There’s not a bad song or moment to be found, depending on your mood, but many listeners may long for more and find themselves wondering what kind of grooves could have been discovered if the band was allowed to run free.
-Hear samples at the above links!