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Scofield brings jazzy gospel to Carrboro

It's only fitting that jazz guitarist John Scofield would play the music of Thomas A. Dorsey on his new gospel-soul disc, Piety Street.

Dorsey, considered the greatest gospel composer of all time, started his career as bluesman Georgia Tom before finding the Lord and turning to His music.

John Scofield isn't talking about finding Jesus, but he too set out to make a blues record, only to find himself recording a set of gospel favorites. And, as with Dorsey, the result is a blessing.

Scofield, one of the three most influential jazz guitarists working today, began exploring the connections between spiritual music and the blues. Ensuing sessions at a New Orleans recording studio produced Piety Street.

"I've been listening to all this old gospel stuff," he said. "This record just felt right."

The disc is a rollicking, uplifting set from the first N'Awlinz piano riffs on "That's Enough" to countrified closer "I'll Fly Away." An all-star band, including singer and keyboardist Jon Cleary as well as Meters bassist George Porter Jr., maintains the joyful feel of a tent revival.

"To me, the hero of this record is Jon Cleary," Scofield said. "When he sings, it makes me want to blow. It's like playing with a great horn player or jazz instrumentalist, someone who wants to make you get bad and play."

Cleary's pipes are great, and his rich organ and piano playing carry Piety Street. In fact, the one complaint might be that Cleary overshadows Scofield.

The record is unusual for Scofield. For starters, it's his first release to feature one lead vocalist from start to finish. But he's always been an inveterate experimenter, bouncing between straightahead jazz, funkier fusion as a Miles Davis sideman in the 1980s and jam-jazz. He gained crossover success with the dread-locked crowd after A Go Go, his influential collaboration with Medeski Martin and Wood in 1997.

His recent releases have alternated between mainstream records-particularly with his trio featuring bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart-and experiments like a Ray Charles tribute or his jam-band project. Scofield said this straightahead/fusion pattern is entirely unintentional, but might reflect his dedication to not getting too set in his ways.

"Every time I do something, it's pretty much instinctual, not doing exactly what I did with the same musicians again," he said. "In jazz, you want to follow up [after touring material with a band]. In a way, even though I love doing that, it's better to do something completely different."

But as the free-ranging vamps on Piety Street attest, the guitarist holds on to the jazz mindset regardless of what genre he is playing. It is tough to tell when inspiration might strike and make a concert great-reason enough to come to the show in Carrboro.

"It might really be good," he said. "But like all jazz, every night is a little different. That's the great thing about live music, especially people that are coming from this tradition of improvisation. I would hope that's it's a good night and some magic could take place."

John Scofield performs at the Arts Center, 300 E. Main St. in Carrboro, Saturday at 8:30. Tickets are $39.

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