Pianist Dred Scott has never been a conventional musician. Even within the precincts of jazz, where there’s no shortage of idiosyncratic career paths, he’s hewed his own route since arriving in the Bay Area in 1989 and helping spark the acid jazz movement with the hip-hop inflected band Alphabet Soup.
Over the past two decades he’s been a stalwart of the New York music scene, providing appropriate accompaniment for fashion shows and television commercials, documentaries, rock concerts, and of course countless jazz gigs in various clubs, joints, and nightspots. His mainstay for the past six years or so has been a four-nights-a-week gig at Del Posto, the city’s only four-star Italian restaurant.
Rather than finding the setting restrictive, he’s positively liberated by the lofty expectations. “I cover everything,” said Scott, who performs with a trio at the Back Room on Sunday afternoon. “I’ll play some Chopin, Bach and Debussy, then some Zeppelin. We got into this thing playing albums all the way through in sequence, like Aja. If I’m bored it’s my problem. They’re executing at a high level, making the best food you can make. They want the best music I can play. The kitchen is all about, what if? What if we do this 100-layer lasagna? They want the music to be like that too.”
He recorded his latest album, 2018’s Dred Scott Rides Alone (Ropeadope) in the Sebastopol studio of his long-time friend and supporter Denny Abrams, the architect and developer who with Richard Millikan spearheaded the transformation of 4th Street into the popular shopping district. While it the instrumentation is conventional piano, bass and drums, Scott played every note himself, bringing to life a gorgeous set of songs he wrote during an artist residency at the UCross Foundation in Wyoming.
Maybe it’s age or fatherhood — he was giving his almost-eight-year-old daughter lunch while we chatted — but Scott seems more interested in manifesting beauty these days than in the past. For Sunday’s Back Room show he’s riding with friends, namely drummer Larry Carr and bassist Geoff Brennan (a Bay Area jazz mainstay in the 1990s who worked widely with Cuban pianist Omar Sosa and is now back in the East Bay).
Speaking of beauty, Scott also performs Tuesday at San Francisco’s Bird and Beckett Books & Records. The concert introduces The Pacific Jazz Quartet, a new band and project featuring saxophonist Eric Crystal, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Smith Dobson V that focuses on music released by the seminal Los Angeles label Pacific Jazz. “It’s all happy music,” said Scott, referring to the early 1950s recordings that came to define West Coast jazz. “I put that on and it makes me feel good. Denny came up with this idea. I’d been playing this music, and I didn’t know what I was going to now in terms of making a record. So it’s a brand new project that we might end up recording at the end of the week.”
Scott only lived in the Bay Area for 10 years, but he made a deep impact. Unsure of what to expect when he moved from Akron, Ohio with his trio Third Plane, he landed here months before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake put a temporary dent in the region’s confidence. “We hardly knew about the Bay Area, but we definitely wanted to get out of the northeast, which meant New York and Chicago were out of the picture,” Scott said.
“We knew there was a multicultural music scene there, and we were very postmodern, or self-indulgent. If we wanted to play some Indian sounding mode, we did, and if we wanted to play some King Sunny Ade or Fela soundng stuff, we did. The Bay Area seemed ideal.”
A gifted and often ribald raconteur with a deceptively conversational writing style, Scott has long chronicled his musical and extra-musical adventures, tales he’s looking to publish as the voraciously readable memoir 50,000 Bonghits. He’s rubbed shoulders (and other body parts) with people from every imaginable walk of life, in much the same way he’s accompanied a mind-boggling array of artists from the worlds of pop, rap, rock, and of course jazz.
As a bandleader he’s equally capable of transforming pop ephemera like Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” into an effective improvisational vehicle as he is playing a program of expertly crafted original compositions. His openness to new musical situations is what led to the creation of Alphabet Soup in 1991.
An effective but not particularly versatile drummer, he would bring an old trap set out to UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza and spend the day playing duo with saxophonist Kenny Brooks. A passing musician suggested they hook up with a rapper named Chris Burger, and by the end of their first basement encounter, the template for Alphabet Soup had been set.
“I played drums on that very first gig and Arlington Houston played bass,” Scott said. “I’m not a very good beat player though, I’m more jazzy, so we got Jay Lane on drums. Nobody was playing live music with rap at that time, though it started to happen in several places concurrently. I think the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest were doing similar things, and we ended up on several bills with the Roots early on because our concepts were similar.”
Performing regularly at the Up and Down Club in Oakland, the band earned a devoted following and played an essential role in sparking the Bay Area’s influential acid jazz scene. The rough and ready aesthetic gave the band supreme flexibility, and the stripped-down harmonic structures left plenty of space for the rappers to interact with the band.
“The rule was you couldn’t have too many parts,” Scott said. “Kenny and I would play the melodies, but the rule was no more than half a sheet of music. Oftentimes you couldn’t tell, but the first 15 songs or so we only had chromatic bass lines with four notes. We wanted to see how many songs could we write, and we’d build songs using those bass lines as cells. That’s what gave us our sound.”