Renowned guitarist John Scofield has steadily co-created with cats across younger generations, beginning with 1997’s Medeski, Martin & Wood collab A Go Go, and onward with his own Bump in ’99. Throughout it all, the veteran player has interpreted as much from younger collaborators as they have from him. Akin to how his former mentor Miles Davis did three decades earlier in the embryonic fusion era, Sco plugged in with the next generation to truly unlock new portals of jazz and funk.
The fruits of said ambitious adventures are found on the seminal Uberjam, Up All Night (live record with the Uberjam band), and a decade-plus later, Uberjam Deux. Each of these landmark releases featured drummer Adam Deitch (Lettuce) as a co-pilot, and it was both his and guitarist/sampler Avi Bortnick‘s contributions to the Uberjam elixir that pushed the art into the avant-garde in the diametrically different jazz and jam circles. This trifecta of LPs has kept Sco vibrant in this particular section of culture, and no doubt always relevant to the current purveyors of jazz and fans of the jam.
Among the young guns that mine inspiration from John Scofield’s funkier plates found on his Gramavision releases of the 1980’s, future funk-hop cosmonauts Lettuce are the creme de la creme. Deitch and his Lettuce brethren are a quarter-century-deep, a laser-sharp unit that trades in the finest of psychedelic funk and golden-era hip-hop grooves. Godfather-like workouts with JB’s-level precision, complete with elements of D.C. Go-Go, Gospel, quiet storm R&B, classic soul, all juxtaposed with fearless improvisation, sonic explorations without a net.
Sco and Deitch have a shared history beyond just Uberjam, as the venerable guitarist is featured on two tracks from Lettuce’s 2002 debut LP, Outta Here. Scofield has also appeared onstage with them at Red Rocks and Brooklyn Bowl in recent years. Word is, Scofield has contributed to as many as four tracks on Adam Deitch Quartet’s forthcoming debut LP, Egyptian Secrets. This kinetic relationship was at the crux of a four-night engagement at the esteemed SFJazz from Thursday, March 21st through Sunday, March 24th and billed as John Scofield with Lettuce.
Lettuce is at the tail end of their wildly-successful VIBE UP Winter Tour 2019, and the band shared the stage with Scofield in Los Angeles. The seven-piece affectionately dubbed LETT-SCO descended on the Bay Area for six collective hours of intergalactic, inter-generational escapades. Each night in SF began at an early hour (7:30 p.m, 7 p.m. on Sunday) and lasted roughly ninety minutes. The ensemble wasted nary a moment of this time, each selection thoughtfully planned and executed. While it was clear that Scofield was the star of the shows, more often than not the finest slabs of sound were a decidedly collective effort.
From night to night, the four shows (for the most part) stayed structurally the same, yet the setlists were varied, as were the fiery performances. Lettuce took the stage first each evening sans Sco, and without fail launched into the ambitious compositions that most define this band in 2019. On Thursday, they began with a searing “Larimar” and it’s Miles-drenched Dominican funk lead by the steamy fatback brass of Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) and a lusty rhythmic undercurrent from drummer Deitch and bassist E.D. “Jesus” Coomes. After a somewhat demonic intro, the squad dove thirty thousand leagues deep with another unreleased anthem dubbed “Purple Cabbage”, itself dripping in Dilla-like tones and multi-hued mass appeal. SFJazz was a funkalicious five-alarm fire before the legendary Scofield even took the stage.
Scofield chose “Polo Towers”, Deitch’s favorite Uberjam track, to first uncork his patented dissonant chordal mysticism, as saxophonist Ryan Zoidis answered Sco with some bright Sonny Stitt-style steez of his own. 1984’s “Filibuster” was played twice over the course of four shows. Along with providing the rare-glimpse of Coomes slapping the bass, the cut also saw Jesus square off with Sco for a friendly axe duel. Each member of Lettuce shares their own special relationship with Sco, and the onstage respect and chemistry betwixt them all made for glorious roller-coaster rides through both of their respective songbooks.
John Scofield with Lettuce – “Pocket Change” – 3/21/19
[Video: Jeff Thorpe]
Thursday’s “Ideofunk” took the vibe to New Orleans a smidgen, the beloved Uberjam number performed only once over the weekend, but to great success. Nigel Hall, clad in a Philadelphia International Records t-shirt, proudly transmitted the Gamble & Huff stuff, while Deitch was comfortable pushing a Crescent City blues along the banks of the Bay. “Pocket Change”, Lettuce’s throwback to Rudy Van Gelder’s Blue Note rare groove era from 2015’s Crush, was unadulterated breakbeat porn. “Pocket Change” saw Ryan Zoidis get his Grover on and take off on tenor, while Deitch invoked the late, great Idris Muhammed. Sco did his damndest to stoke Zoid’s flame with electrifying guitar phrasings; the pair had a conversation that won’t be soon forgotten.
“Back in Effect”, one of two Outta Here (2002) tracks that feature Scofield, was uncorked like a stutter-step funk bomb, followed by the frenetic Rage (2008) fury of “Last Suppit”. Both of these numbers saw Lettuce’s own phenomenal guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff lock in on the tastiest rhythm parts, setting the proverbial table for Sco to continually go yard with bombastic displays of guitar mastery. All weekend, Shmeeans’ humble servitude was yet another selfless display of LETT reverence for the living legend with whom they shared the stage.
The encore on the first two shows was “Every Night is Ladies Night” from Scofield’s Up All Night live record. Thursday night’s encore saw Shmeeans shine on the chicken-scratch riddims, while the Friday “Ladies Night” featured some East Atlanta-style trap beats from the funky drummer.
On the second night at SFJazz, Lettuce chose to open with two of their hallmark compositions of the past five years, “Trillogy” and “Phyllis”, both found on Crush and affectionately mashed into “TRYLLIS”. “Trillogy” borrowed from Dr. Dre and mined the dub-tropic wells of King Tubby before soaring into “Phyllis”, Lettuce once again dancing with the ghost of J Dilla. All of the current elements of LETT magic were on display within this double dose, once again showing that this band can go zero-to-one hundred real quick.
With Sco again in tow, the seven-piece hit their Friday night stride on “I Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely” found on Up All Night, a cover of The Main Ingredient’s 1974 hit. Lettuce and Scofield revealed the original’s gut-bucket funk, but Deitch reimagined things with inventive beats that gave the song a decidedly different flavor. Same could be said for the (then) futuristic “Jungle Fiction”, an Uberjam classic that marries the progressive ideas of funk fusion with the space-invader riddims of the Bristol, UK 1990’s—think pioneering producer-kings Squarepusher and LTJ Bukem flipping Return to Forever into jungle-room jump-up bangers. The flowering of two generations of jamtronica was eloquently revealed, as Deitch surgically enhanced the “Amen” break with controlled fury, toggling to half-time head-nodders whilst pushing Sco to stretch and bend but never overstep. The new wrinkle in both versions of “Jungle Fiction” (played Friday and Sunday) was obviously LETT’s Shady Horns, as Zoidis and Bloom found just the right spaces to slip into and sizzle with their tectonic brew.
Nigel Hall emerged from the shadows behind a castle of keyboards and the frontmen to unveil a spine-tingling take on Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More than You’ll Ever Know”, an emotional cut found on the late singer’s 1973 LP Extensions of a Man. It is an absolute wonder to behold Nigel inhabiting a tortured R&B genius, embodying the inflections and mannerisms of Hathaway. Even Scofield himself was visibly taken aback by the conviction emanating from Hall’s stirring performance.
Over the course of four shows, Lettuce frequently ran the gamut in styles and eras. Friday’s show screamed down the home stretch with a pair of tunes that exemplify where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re heading. Beginning with the unreleased masterpiece that is “4th Dimension”, a primordial pillaging of DJ Premier’s record crates that will appear on Lettuce’s forthcoming LP (due this summer). Benny Bloom pushed the envelope towards trippy fabrics, playing way up and way out with assertive phrasings while Scofield laced up the LETT with his patented reverberating tone(s) and scintillating six-string statements. “4th Dimension” made the heads nod like emergency brakes, spilling into the bubonic “Kron Dutch”, which saw Nigel get loose on Fender Rhodes as the whole squad continued to revel in an authentic hip-hop essence. A rollicking “Lettsanity” (from 2012’s FLY) concluded the main set on Friday before all seven men returned for another “Ladies Night” encore.
Lettuce – “TRAP” – 3/23/19
[Video: Iain Hainsworth]
For their third performance at SFJazz, to a swollen, sold-out audience, Lettuce opened with the cataclysmic “Trapezoid”, yet another unreleased song from the long-awaited LP due later this year. Legitimately a search for new land, this song definitively drew a line in the sand between the staid and stoic in the SFJazz audience who were drawn in by Scofield and the wide-eared funkateers that mob and march to the LETT madness. The former sat in the mezzanine and balcony, quizzically scratching their heads at this ATL-centric, 808 soundscape, while the latter lost their proverbial minds and inhibitions on the GA dancefloor, bobbing and weaving while the band played a “Trapezoid” that leaned away from its usual promethazine trip and decidedly toward a dreamy DMT excursion. By the time they landed this spaceship on the SFJazz stage after an eleven-minute “Trapezoid”, Lettuce had effectively converted the rest of the room. “Ready to Live” was what could be considered a hard left—about as bipolar a song pairing as possible. This delivered more heaping slabs of R&B swagger, with Nigel Hall’s vocals and Rhodes at the forefront of the rendition.
Scofield sauntered onstage for a Saturday night special and reveled in a throwback rare-groove steez on “Kool”, culled from his 1995 LP Groove Elation. While Sco unleashed one searing solo phrasing after the next, Jesus Coomes awash in sturdy low-end rumble, Deitch continued to inhabit Idris and steer this ship deep into the funky pockets. “Kool” was a tremendous collective effort, especially juxtaposed with the esoteric, haunting “Deadzy” that immediately followed. From 1997’s A Go-Go collab with MMW, “Deadzy” saw the spookier elements of jam and jazz dance a cryptic waltz. The pair of Sco tunes took LETT out of their comfort zone, and the band responded with a couple of superb readings. This particular night saw some of the most furious styles from drummer Adam Deitch that this writer has ever witnessed—On Saturday night, the man was- quite simply possessed.
“Pep n Step”, a Lettuce outtake from 2012’s FLY sessions, was an intentional homage to funk forefathers The Meters. LETT-SCO continued interpolating a NOLA sound—on this San Francisco night they were the best in town—and people began sauntering down the aisles, a bevy of natives getting restless. The live squad concluded the main set strong with a tight “NYACK”, found on Outta Here. A one-two punch of Lettuce’s (re-imagined) “Do It Like You Do” and James Brown’s timeless burner “Funky Drummer”, both fronted by the enigmatic Hall, sent the capacity crowd first into a dithers and then into the night, completely invigorated and brimming with joy.
John Scofield with Lettuce – “NYACK” – 3/23/19
[Video: Iain Hainsworth]
Predictably, the final night would be the finest; like the saying goes: “never miss a Sunday show.” Warming things up with the safest call of all the openers, “Get Greazy” (Crush) showcased the sextet’s command of tight funk grooves and a humongous pocket, while Ryan Zoidis fired up the KORG synth rig and took off to sunbathe on the rings of Saturn. The band’s sound was vibrant, the sonics lush and alive thanks to Lettuce FOH engineer Hunter Gifford. Lighting director Daniel Hiudt was also on point, bringing in some additional lights to create extra-terrestrial visual atmospherics that enhanced the musical experience.
The magnum opus “Gang Ten” was next, always a roaring, roller-coaster psychedelic thunderclap. Harmonious layers and composed sections gave way to a true type II improvisational journey that again transitioned into lusty quiet-storm R&B and lysergic voodoo texture lead by adventurous bass work from Coomes and mind-bending psychedelia from Smirnoff, Bloom and Zoidis. The outro section of “Gang Ten” was new to these ears and was, sure enough, a certified stomper. LETT guitarist Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff was locked and loaded with merciless riffage. Bloom’s omnipresent Air Jordans hopped around the stage, the new guy egging on Nigel, Deitch, Zoid and Jesus, each of whom answered the call with a ten-ton sledgehammer. This writer is willing to bet this “Gang Ten” outro manifests into a stand-alone song within a year.
I did not envy Scofield having to take the stage after that opening segment, but damn if the legend didn’t step into the moment like maybe only he can. Instead of trying to keep things turnt, he commandeered the spaceship and immediately slowed our roll. This was achieved with a steamy hollow-body jazz guitar clinic on “What You See is What You Get” (originally by The Dramatics), found on Up All Night. From there, Sco dove headfirst into the weekend’s second (and finer) take on the iridescent “Jungle Fiction”, an even more hot-blooded reading than Friday’s blistering version. More canned Scofield jokes about Lettuce being little kids in ‘84 preceded another “Pick Hits” before Deitch and company waded into the ether of the new intro to their behemoth banger, “Blast Off”.
This Rage classic saw Sco deal himself all the way in for perhaps the first time all weekend. Instead of hanging back and waiting to solo, he jumped onboard the LETT improvisational mothership with nary a f*ck given. The cosmic funk space-boogie was nothing short of otherworldly. Nigel got busy on the ARP synth, Sco pushed Zoid to play out, and Zoid shoved him back in a glorious upping of the ante. Scofield then preceded to show the teeming SFJazz massive, which had been whipped into a “Blast Off” frenzy, exactly what time it was—and why his name was on the marquee.
A juicy, melodic guitar solo gave way to Deitch and Jesus ever-so-assertively pushing Latin rhythms for a hot minute. Wait… what’s that… “On the Corner”? In an instant, LETT-SCO began a white-hot run through one of Miles Davis’ most controversial (and misunderstood) artistic statements. Deitch was steady bringing the thump, but it sounded—at least to this writer—like it was Bloom at the wheel. In an instant-classic hand-off, the LETT-SCO crew launched a lightning-speed segue into a quickie fireball reading of “On the Corner” complete with a JB’s drunken monkey breakdown and STAX-styled climax. In a word, ridiculous…
As LETT showered SFJazz in a healthy swig of Witches Stew, Sco turned the tables on everybody, uncorking screaming Jimi Hendrix quotes in a harrowing, electrifying tone. Undeniable phrases from “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe”, revealed without warning, left jaws agape from the front rows to the rafters. This all-time rendition of “Blast Off” gave way to Davis’ celebrated “Black Satin”, which segued perfectly into the rambunctious rare groove of “Pocket Change, the only Lettuce repeat throughout the four nights.
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Lettuce guitarist Adam Smirnoff had a few choice words before embarking on a special composition that most in the audience would be hearing for the first time, despite the fact that they had been teasing and hinting at it all weekend long. “Moksha” is another unreleased monster from the forthcoming Lettuce album sessions (though word it is that it won’t be on whatever drops first over the summer), and it finds Shmeeans channeling Ravi Shankar and John McLaughlin in a mystifying ballet. On this special, final night, deep into the collaboration, we observed Scofield really listening to Smirnoff, and then playing with him, dueling in a Far Eastern-dipped dalliance that is forever embedded in the hearts and minds of all at SFJazz who were blessed to take it in.
In the most serendipitous fashion, LETT-SCO returned to the stage with beaming smiles and the highest of vibes and lept into Curtis Mayfield’s timeless “Move On Up”, an emotional number that Lettuce has sometimes made their own dating back to the halcyon days of Bear Creek. Nigel Hall was the game winner, again. Beyond stirring up the congregation with the usual “Move On Up” vocals, he also asked for a breakdown, and the band gave him the solo moment. Hovering over minimalist Rhodes voicings while the entire SFJazz room held onto his every note and word, Nigel Hall dug as deep as ever… coming up for air somewhere between Teddy Pendergrass and the aforementioned Mayfield to unveil a stirring string of stanzas that made many well up with tears of joy and pain. As much as each of these men are virtuoso in their own rights, what Nigel can do, say, and convey with his voice is truly transformational, both for his band and their audience. A phenomenal, emotional cut to close out four stupendous evenings at SFJazz for John Scofield with Lettuce.
As they all took a hard-earned band bow and left the stage for the final time, bassist Coomes lagged behind. The erstwhile philosopher got on the mic to poignantly ask all who had come together to hear this mystical muse spring to life to please do their part in working towards “our better future.” Yes indeed, words to live by… and thank you Jesus.
For a list of Lettuce’s upcoming tour dates, hit the band’s website here.
Setlists: John Scofield with Lettuce | SFJazz | San Francisco, CA | 3/21–24/19
Thursday 3.21– Larimar, Purple Cabbage, (Scofield enters) Polo Towers, Filibuster, Ideofunk, Pocket Change, Back in Effect, Last Suppit. E: Ladies Night
Friday 3.22– Trillogy > Phyllis = TRYLLIS, (Scofield enters) Pick Hits, I Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely, Jungle Fiction, I Love You (Donny Hathaway cover), 4th Dimension, Kron Dutch, Lettsanity. E: Ladies Night
Saturday 3.23– Trapezoid, Ready to Live, (Scofield enters) KOOL, Filibuster, Deadzy > Flu the Coop, Pep n Step, Nyack. E: Do it Like You Do > Funky Drummer
Sunday 3.24 – Get Greazy, Gang Ten, (Scofield enters) What You See is What You Get, Jungle Fiction, Pick Hits, Blast Off > Black Satin > Pocket Change, Moksha. E: Move On Up