REVIEW – First Listen: Scott Sawyer’s ‘Night Visions’

Scott Sawyer
Night Visions
Doll Records, 2020

By Jim Dixon
May 31, 2020

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Here’s one you would probably miss in a blindfold test. A noir jazz album that sounds like it might have emerged from the Brooklyn jazz scene. Or maybe Chicago…or Seattle, or San Francisco? Perhaps a group of 20-something or 30-something musicians?

Night Visions comes from the North Carolina jazz scene, though the players all took different routes to end up there. Their bios are peppered with performance and recording credits for heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Mose Allison, and Sonny Fortune. Bandleader and guitarist Scott Sawyer, who composed all the music here, has been playing jazz and other styles professionally since the early 1980s, but aside from his work with singer Nnenna Freelon, he has had limited national exposure.

Sawyer has thoroughly absorbed the modern and post-modern jazz guitar traditions, from fundamentals laid down by Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall to the developments of the players like John Abercrombie and John Scofield who later set the pace. He’s got an exquisite touch and shares with Kurt Rosenwinkel the ability to dial in an elegant and warm electric guitar tone that doesn’t highlight signal-processing effects.

All that said, Sawyer would probably point out that he’s not making a “jazz guitar record” here, he’s just making a jazz record. Night Visionsis his first full-length jazz album since 1992, though he’s released a couple of jazz-adjacent albums in the interval. It’s a mature and focused set, played with a quartet featuring tenor saxophonist Dave Finucane as Sawyer’s primary foil.

Finuncane, who early in his career was a part of the Boston avant-garde big band Orange Then Blue, ended up in North Carolina after 20 years on the New York jazz scene. Together, Sawyer and Finucane might remind listeners of two well-known guitar/tenor sax partnerships from recent decades, those of Kurt Rosenwinkel with Mark Turner, and John Scofield with Joe Lovano. Finucane’s burnished tenor tone has something in common with the sounds of Turner and Michael Blake, all of them eschewing the thinner and brighter jazz saxophone sounds fashionable from the 1970s through the 1990s. Finucane weds a particularly rich and smoky 50’s-Lester-Young tone to a post-bop jazz language.

The rhythm section — Ron Brendle on acoustic bass, and the crackling percussion of former Sonny Rollins drummer Kobie Watkins — gives the session a depth one might not expect from a self-published release like this. Sawyer likes to write slightly angular and playful tunes, like the Monk-ish “Biz” and twisty blues “Tripper”, and Watkins levitates these pieces with a swinging style that catches and prods the soloists in the tradition of drummers like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. No thundering drum showcases here, but plenty to chew on when focusing on rhythm. Sawyer’s “Via” (a tribute to the late David Via, Sawyer’s regular drummer during the 1980s and 1990s) is a bit of a drum feature, and therefore a good track for listening to Watkins, but it’s far from the only track where he catches your attention. The sound engineering and production by Jason Richmond and the relatively open soundscapes Sawyer’s tunes allow the drums to play a truly equal role in the music.

At the heart of the album are a handful of ballads (“Passage,” “Safe,” and “To Be Determined”) that draw on the moody aesthetics of Wayne Shorter, Bill Frisell, and even Bill Evans, giving the record some of its most affecting moments. “Safe” in particular joins a haunting melody to a deep, minimalist bass groove (Brendle’s love of Charlie Haden’s perfectly-chosen notes is apparent here) and a melodic drum part that becomes as central as the guitar and saxophone parts as the song unwinds.

Balancing out the ballads and the post-Ornette bop are a couple of blusier, mid-tempo pieces that sound like soul-jazz with a post-modern twist. “Blue Lounge” starts with a deliberately lumbering back-beat and has the simplicity of Kenny Burrell’s classic “Chitlins Con Carne”, but the dirtier guitar tone and the caveman rhythms evoke some of the tunes of Bill Frisell’s early-1990s partnership with drummer Joey Baron. “Crawl” is another earthy tune, a gospel-tinged cousin of Peter Erskine’s “Sweet Soul” from the second Bass Desires album, with some choice soul guitar fills that show that Sawyer’s vocabulary extends beyond the bebop tradition. Listening to “Crawl”, it struck me that it would have been interesting to hear this band transform a rock or soul classic, the way that Michael Blake’s Slow Poke quartet re-imagined the Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” on its Redemption album.

The album should satisfy fans of musicians like John Medeski, Frisell and Scofield who mix a dash of the avant garde into accessible and catchy tunes that typically get the job done seven minutes or less. It’s real jazz, but it wouldn’t clear out a coffee shop if you played it over the house speakers.

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Jim Dixon is a writer living in San Francisco. Night Visions is available through Bandcamp)

Personalized “real time” Online Instruction with Scott Sawyer

I am currently accepting NEW students for Online Individual Instruction beginning in September (one-offs or recurring). I’m also offering several Group Classes thru the Durham Jazz Workshop/Sharp Nine Gallery, details are here:

A solid internet connection and a computer/tablet (preferred) or smartphone is required. All online lessons include follow-up written or video feedback to completed and submitted “assignments”.

I have about 40 years of experience instructing and collaborating with guitarists, non-guitarists, singers, singer-songwriters, poets and dancers. I’ve had the good fortune of playing and learning from many accomplished musicians/artists, including some of my personal favorites.

My approach to instructing is fluid, not “cookie cutter”. We’re all individuals with varying interests, experiences and skill-sets…I consider it all. We can explore approaches to improvisation, accompaniment, composition and arranging ideas – and more – in a variety of genres.

I’ve been instructing online since mid-March and have found it to be a very effective platform. My regular students are progressing as quickly as ever, and in most cases more.

If you’d like to learn more, you can email me with any questions or text 919-423-4853 schedule a phone call.

*I’m offering FREE 15-minute Zoom consultations thru September 30, 2020

Finally, for the “jazzers” out there, here’s a home recording from 2005, live and unedited…saxophonist Glen Ingram and I performing “I Remember You”.

“Guitar Zone” Online with Scott Sawyer (Durham Jazz Workshop)

Guitarists: I’m looking forward to the maiden voyage of “Guitar Zone”, being offered by the Durham Jazz Workshop. If you’re interested in jazz and improvising (in general) but have been hesitant to dive in, this class is for you. If you’re already familiar with the music and want to up your game, this class is for you.

The mix of group and 1-on-1 instruction allows me to help you to work on things that YOU are interested in…this is not a “1 size fits all” group.

*The price is right…and even with my current online discounts is much less than my private instruction 1-on-1 rate .

If you have a solid internet connection and a computer/laptop/tablet (preferred) or smartphone, we can work together effectively; no matter where you are.

You can register for this class and others here:

I’m also offering 1-on-1 Online Instruction with discounted rates thru September 2020 (45, 60 and 90-minute sessions).

E-mail me for info: ss @ scottsawyer DOT net

Payment Info — for Online Lessons, NEW album Night Visions and contributions from patrons…

Scott accepts payments for online lessons, and from “patrons” here:

Venmo — @Scott-Sawyer-guitar

PayPal —

CashApp — $scottsawyer1

Thank You everybody, please stay safe, and Be Well! ~ SS 5/21/2020

His new album “Night Visions” (2020) is available at: or or email Scott

NEW for 2020!

ONLINE “face-to-face” lessons now available.

Sep 18, 2020 — Prior to March 2020 I’d given a handful of real-time online lessons, but found the process to be awkward and frustrating at best…my technology couldn’t keep up.

The C-19 pandemic pushed me to get it together and try again as I was required to instruct my East Carolina University students online, and could no longer meet with my other students face-to-face at the Durham Jazz Workshop.

After 6 months of dealing with the pros and cons of online instruction, I’m very comfortable with it, learning how to be more effective, and enjoying the process.

I’ve been instructing for many years, and have learned that there is more than one way to get from point A to point B. I have vast experience performing a very broad range of music and am here to help you. I provide students with personalized instruction, not “cookie cutter”.

Not sure we’ll “hit it off”? I’m happy to offer a FREE 15-minute online consultation to discuss what we could get into.

In the meantime, start here

Upon request I’ll e-mail you info on lesson lengths/fees, and links to recordings and video.

Contact me here: or

Stay safe, Be Well. ~ SS

Nnenna Freelon and Scott Sawyer, a RARE duo performance on Oct 22…

Nnenna and I go back to the late 1980’s…

Brother Yusuf Salim was the connection. For several years we performed regularly as a duo, as well as with other musicians. When Nnenna signed with Columbia, I was there for the Blue Note showcase in NYC and subsequent Philip Morris Superband World Tour. On and off, I’ve continued through the years to record, perform and tour with her, here and abroad.

On Saturday Oct 22, there are two shows at the Sharp Nine Gallery, 7 and 9pm.

Ticket links are here (advance purchase recommended):

7pm show —
9pm show —

Our last NC duo performances were almost 25 years ago (long-time fans may recall Pyewacket, Centerfest, Cappers, more). 

The Sharp Nine Gallery (Durham, NC) is a bona fide “listening room”, and seats only 66 people…this is not just a RARE opportunity to hear our duo, it’s a rare opportunity to see and hear Nnenna Freelon up-close in an intimate club setting.

*The Sharp Nine traditionally gives away some wine by the glass – while it lasts – and offers BYOB (no corkage fee) and free parking. For these shows, there may be other perks…TBA.






nnenna liveshaking free










…a rare opportunity to see/hear JOHN ABERCROMBIE in NC!

The Legendary JOHN ABERCROMBIE returns to NC!

NEXT Friday AND Saturday – June 10 & 11 – at the Sharp Nine Gallery, 8pm both nights.

John had a blast playing with Scott Sawyer and Co. last year and welcomed an invite again this year for 2 nights. Expect some duo’s, trios and quartets throughout the evenings.

Abercrombie has been signed for his entire career to the famous ECM Record label and has over 40 records as a leader. He is absolutely one of the most influential guitarists in jazz and its a real treat to be able to bring him in from NY. His 2012 recording “Within A Song” with Joe Lovano/Joey Barron/Drew Gress is just incredible. One of my all time fav’s. – Dave Finucane

BUY NOW, don’t wait. Tickets are still available, but LIMITED. Shows are at 8pm , $40 general, $30 students. BYOB.

***John will present a masterclass on Saturday afternoon (6/11); 3-4:30pm ($40 general/$30 students)

John Abercrombie – guitar, Scott Sawyer – guitar, Dave Finucane – sax, Ron Brendle – bass, Dan Davis – drums

john abercrombie & scott sawyer

Army Town Madrigal

The NEW David Childers and Bruce Piephoff album, “Army Town Madrigal” has been released. Recorded and produced by Robert Childers, this one is a departure from Bruce’s previous two releases, “Soft Soap Purrings” and “Still Looking Up at the Stars”; it’s a bare-bones, home recording with a whole lotta love and heart. I’m happy to be a part of this album, having contributed electric guitar parts to Bruce’s tunes and poetry…and the “back and forth” – a Childers tune followed by a Piephoff tune, x 6 – really works.

These are absolutely two of the finest songwriters that I’ve had the pleasure of working with (in the land?). Enjoy!

You can get a copy from David or Bruce, as follows:

send $10 to David Childers at 730 Noles Drive, Mt. Holly, NC 28120


e-mail Bruce or message Bruce on Facebook

Army Town Madrigal - front cover

Army Town Madrigal - back cover