John Scofield PIETY STREET


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White boys can play the blues. Caucasian crooners from Elvis to Jagger have proved that arguments to the contrary hold about as much water as a shot glass. But that doesn't mean it's easy.

Guitarist John Scofield's new disc, Piety Street, exhibits the difficulties inherent in making a blues album that stands out. Working within a genre that's fairly limited, even incestuous, Scofield and company trust that excellent musicianship alone can make this happen. While the musical talent is undeniable, especially on tracks like guitar showcase "I'll Fly Away," it's also subtle, making for an album of songs that are more enjoyable on the second or third listen.

The choice of tracks-mostly standard blues covers, with one written by Scofield-limits the creative possibilities of a bandleader who's won fans playing in everything from jazz trios to funk bands. Piety Street presents Scofield exploring gospel, with mixed results. "Something's Got a Hold on Me" is a melodic example. With its gospel-inspired chorus, it sways at first but ultimately bores, lacking the variation needed for a song of its length.

Considering this, the penultimate track, "The Angel of Death," comes completely out of left field. Tenderly sung by Jon Cleary, its shimmering, layered chords live up to the reputation Scofield has built over his long career as a versatile virtuoso. His playing on the remaining tracks is strong but can't overcome the album's generic, lighthearted tone.

The main instrumental accompaniment to Scofield's guitar, the piano and organ, sound sunny and nondescript. It's a solid album, but it takes few risks and sticks safely to the middle of a well-traversed delta road. Whatever a musician's skin color, it takes a little bit of grit to play the blues, and this album is just too friendly to pull it off.

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