If you come to John Scofield’s latest tribute release That’s What I Say wanting mainly open ended, jazz-blowing versions of famous Ray Charles tunes, you’ll likely be disappointed. However, with the likes of John Mayer, Mavis Staples, Aaron Neville, Dr. John and Warren Haynes being heavily marketed with the record, it’s unlikely anyone would be expecting a ‘pure’ jazz record. Nor would it necessarily have been a better artistic choice. Though Charles had prodigious ‘jazz’ keyboard skills, much of the time he kept a tight leash on his chops to serve the song and to keep listeners in touch with the emotional core and lyric content. For the most part, Scofield (who is credited with nearly all the record’s arranging) sticks to this concept as well.
On the instrumental tracks, Scofield keeps the listener in touch with the ‘core groove,’ as opposed to the lyric content, likely hoping that the listener is already aware of the words. The recording is split down the middle: half instrumental and half vocal versions. There are hits and misses on both sides, but mainly hits. Scofield often finds the right middle ground between being overprotective of Charles’ aesthetic and running amok as a jazz iconoclast. Over the course of his now three decade long career, Scofield has made a point of striking middle ground between styles (rock, blues, jazz, funk) and this experience serves him well on this project.
Unsurprisingly, however, the instrumental tracks here have more energy on the whole. It is mostly Scofield who takes the melody honors on these cuts ("Busted," "Sticks And Stones," "Crying Time," "Hit The Road Jack" and "Georgia On My Mind") and we are the beneficiaries. He’s always had a bluesy, vocal, ‘crying’ quality to his tone which is just right for Charles’ music. His horn arrangements on "Hit The Road Jack" (including Charles’ colleague David ‘Fathead’ Newman) are a real kick and definitely contain some Sco-isms, which will put a wide grin of recognition on any Scofield fan’s face. He also cuts loose at the end of this track, blowing the most jazz to be heard on the record. The highlight of the instrumental tracks comes with "Sticks And Stones." This one is the burner. Any crowd with the slightest proclivity toward dance would be happy to groove to this one all night. This tune could be the love child borne of The Meters, Beastie Boys, James Brown and Jimmy Smith. Larry Goldings on organ is in his element here and very comfortable having played extensively with Scofield on many other occasions. This cut has lots of carefully orchestrated breaks, hits and studio effects built into the form, yet they are not at all distracting from the groove. In fact they create it and these techniques and ideas would’ve well served a few of the other tracks on the record that came off a little lackluster. The rhythm section is rounded out with the great Willie Weeks on bass and Steve Jordan on drums. Jordan also produced the record. It sounds like he’s absorbed some lessons from his producer friend Marcus Miller whom he worked with on David Sanborn’s Upfront. That record has some similar qualities to this one and that’s a good thing.
Dr. John is the most successful of the singers here possibly because of his innate similarities to Charles’ own style. He sounds relaxed and at home on "Talkin’ Bout You/I Got A Woman," playing piano and singing with his personal brand of blues and whimsy. The rest of the tunes featuring the guest singers are all listenable but nothing too special. Much of the vocal selections could have benefited from a loosening of the forms for a little more expression.Inevitably the ‘sell out’ criticism will worm its way into the discussion of this record by jazz purists. "Why would Scofield waste his time playing with silly rock and rollers like Mayer and Haynes?" and other barbed and jaded questions or jabs from the near-sighted jazz police. Undoubtedly he’s heard it all before and by now it rolls right off his back. As for the rock and roll and pop music listeners who may come to this recording via their interest in Mayer and the others - welcome. Dig in.