DeJohnette, Grenadier, Medeski, Scofield: Hudson
John Scofield, electric guitar; Larry Grenadier, bass; John Medeski, keyboards; Jack DeJohnette, drums.
Motema CD-228 (CD). 2017. Hudson, prods.; Scott Petito, eng.; Beth Reineke, asst. eng. DDD TT: 69:92
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Sometimes, a successful recording is not about the material, the studio, the producer, or even the players involved. Sometimes, it’s about a shared feeling that grows among the players and conjures a groove. Grooves can be hard to find, especially among accomplished players recording together for the first time who have styles, ideas, and egos of their own. But once achieved, this invisible bond, this feeling of being in sync, should sound easy—as if there’s nothing to it. It’s this sort of natural, authentic pace and feeling that makes Hudson, the first recording from the quartet of Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski, and John Scofield, such a success.

As the pathway leading north out of the often frustrating clamor of Gotham, the Hudson River has long looked like a paradise. In the early 19th century it inspired the fanciful, idyllic realism of the Hudson River School of painting, which was founded by Thomas Cole and eventually came to include his student Frederic Edwin Church and, to some extent, Albert Bierstadt.

The quartet of musicians, all of whom live nearby the artistic nexus of Woodstock—whose name was once attached to a 1969 music festival held 60 miles away, in Bethel, New York—take the name of the river itself. The quartet and its self-titled album are being touted as the work of a jazz “supergroup,” which considering the resumes is in the ballpark. DeJohnette (who’s played with Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett), Grenadier (Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny), Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Word), and Scofield (Miles Davis, Charles Mingus) first came together to mark DeJohnette’s 75th birthday.

But soon these near neighbors of the Woodstock area hit on an idea that ensured success: an album, recorded at Scott Petito’s NRS Recording Studio, in Catskill, New York, of songs with a connection to Woodstock and environs, a region that, liner notes assert, has “the highest density per capita of creative artists of any locale in the nation.”

Hudson opens with the sinuous fusion of the title track, a conversation between Scofield and DeJohnette that engineer Petito says “was a very long improvisation, very much like a Bitches Brew/In a Silent Way sort of thing, that we did chop up but whose core energy was done in one take.”

No album with a Woodstock theme would be complete without at least an attempt at Joni Mitchell’s classic song of that name. This slow reading, highlighted by Scofield’s sensitive handling of the melody and DeJohnette’s detailed cymbal work, was captured in the first take. According to Scofield, as quoted in the liner notes, the band “had this vibe but we didn’t know it.”

Another vibe, this one surrounding Jimi Hendrix’s unforgettable performance as the closer of the Woodstock Festival, receives a nod in a performance of the guitarist’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” The Band, members of which once lived in a big pink house in nearby Saugerties, is honored with a version of Robbie Robertson’s “Up On Cripple Creek” that opens with a little New Orleans–flavored piano from Medeski before Scofield again takes a sure hand. Finally, inevitably, the album revolves around two folk-song classics by the area’s foremost bard, Bob Dylan.

In a very accessible reggae-ized version of “Lay Lady Lay”—another first take—Sco digs in and improvises around the melody as Medeski’s organ pulses in the background before he takes his own solo. In lesser hands this might have become saccharine mush, a blatant attempt at a crossover hit, yet here it works.

Even better is Hudson‘s version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which opens with Scofield’s guitar playing the melody in gorgeous, perfectly placed single notes, before devolving and evolving into a DeJohnette-Scofield fusion exploration with Medeski judiciously adding a variety of elongated chord layers on organ.

While the album’s original compositions pale in comparison to some of the folk and rock classics covered, Scofield’s “El Swing,” grounded by a repeated figure on piano, is a lovely showcase for Medeski on acoustic piano. In the other Scofield original, “Tony Then Jack,” a celebration of the lineage of drummers in Miles Davis’s bands, the four transform into a fast, funky organ trio, Sco and Medeski trading solos.

DeJohnette’s originals are shaley, half-baked: the amiable, slow-paced “Song for World Forgiveness”; a very Rick Danko-and-Band–like collaboration with Bruce Hornsby, “Dirty Ground,” in which DeJohnette fails at singing; and finally, “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” with DeJohnette playing tom-tom and everyone joining in a rhythmic, almost singing, Native American–flavored chant.

Hudson was recorded direct to Pro Tools at 24-bit/96kHz. Petito, who’s been DeJohnette’s recording engineer for 20 years, sensibly defines his job as “capturing the spontaneity, being productive and part of the process, but not getting in the way.” At this he succeeds admirably. Petito says that, apart from a few overdubs of Medeski’s organ, the album was recorded live in the studio. The sound is clear, multi-dimensional and particularly compelling when it comes to the DeJohnette’s many drum textures.

There are many, fans and players alike, who might scoff at the idea of jazz supergroup; for jazz purists, it sounds a bit too much like Cream, or the Traveling Wilburys. But if there was ever a time and a genre that needed a group that might bring in some young fans and sell some records, jazz needs the star power. Hopefully, there will be more to hear from this powerful foursome.—Robert Baird