The guitarist serves up some country tunes with a quartet of old friends. But he is reliably swinging on everything.
Old reliable. It goes anywhere. Starts right up the moment you turn the key and, boy, does it get you there. Smooth ride, and there’s a little kick from the engine when you need it — some growl, some power, ready to do some work in the passing lane as necessary.
That’s guitarist John Scofield — not a young upstart like he was in the 1970s with Gerry Mulligan or the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band. Not the engine of mature fire who powered Miles Davis’s best 1980s band. Heck, you could argue that he’s no longer the mid-life master who teamed up with saxophonist Joe Lovano to helm the hippest jazz quartet of the 1990s. “Sco” is almost 65, what used be called retirement age, and his new record addresses the age thing up front via a play on the Cormac McCarthy book title Country for Old Men.
Well, Sco may be older, but he still gets you there. And goes anywhere in music. Plenty of kick, but, frankly, that’s not why most of us listen to him these days. We listen to John Scofield because he brings that old guy thing to everything he does: wisdom and taste, great stories, the subtle stuff that carries you all the way to satisfaction.
Country for Old Men features a quartet of “old” Scofield collaborators, each one good as gold: the astonishing electric bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Bill Stewart from that great ‘90s quartet and other recent work, and pianist/B3 master Larry Goldings. The album, of course, has a concept: the band plays songs written by or associated with country singers. But that shtick is the thing that defines this collection the least, as this is simply a modern jazz record that crosses several styles and uses a bunch of great songs (call them “country” if you want, but they are mainly excellent melodies) as a platform for strong group interplay.
Listen first to Scofield’s take on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, that most iconic of Hank Williams tunes. The band swings it, uptempo, with burning Hammond organ accompaniment and with the guitar abstracting the melody into its simplest riff components. You will barely recognize it (and it is not played as “country”), but the treatment verifies that this is blues-based American music that can lead you anywhere. In this case, it becomes a searing duel between Scofield’s bop/groove electric guitar exploration and Goldings's use of the organ like a mad scientist to conjure daring accompaniment and mind-bending tones for his improvisation.
The band burns and swings hard elsewhere, too. “Wildwood Flower”, a folk song associated with the Carter Family, walks at a fast clip, with Sco soloing for a few choruses before Goldings brings up the Hammond. It’s a fleet piece of work, even though the head arrangement gives Scofield the chance to insert a bit of twang. Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” is also treated to a scamper of four-on-the-floor swing, and Bob Willis’s “Faded Love” also strolls with a mid-tempo élan — Scofield utterly willing to choose some weirder bebop notes despite the theme of the recording.
The melody and intent of “Wayfaring Stranger” is not at all altered by the bayou arrangement the band favors. Stewart reaches to New Orleans for his groove, and Goldings uses a vamp with some hip chord shifts to frame this great, lonely tune as a minor blues. Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” is given a Coltrane-esque treatment in 6/8, evoking the classic “My Favorite Things” as Goldings plays acoustic piano with more than a little McCoy Tyner feeling and Stewart puts in Elvin-style cymbal work. Both Scofield and Swallow use their solos to hold onto and mutate the melody — and it is some of the most lyrical improvising on the record.
A few songs here retain a folk/country feeling. The opener, “Mr. Fool” by George Jones, is Scofield at his most Americana-ish — arguably pulling a move from the playbook of his sometime collaborator, Bill Frisell. Goldings opens up the piano harmonies with hints of gospel (with quiet organ swells, too), and Stewart keeps it simple. The leader is nevertheless wholly himself, as the superb recording captures that choked, mumbly-blues tone. As he solos, Sco plays up high on the neck and gets a combination of blues cries and bent-string country-isms. James Taylor’s “Bartender Blues” and “Just a Girl I Used to Know” work similarly.
This collection ends with the three most variable tracks. “You’re Still the One” is a contemporary country hit by Shania Twain (and, interestingly, it was also covered by jazz drummer Otis Brown III a couple years ago with Gretchen Parlato singing), and it sounds like a song so catchy that it could almost be one of those Scofield originals that is memorable even without words. I don’t love the rockabilly organ lead that starts “Red River Valley” all that much, and when it transitions into walking swing for Sco’s solo, it just reminds you that the rock part wasn’t fully felt by the band.
Then as a small treat at the end, we hear Scofield play Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand” all by himself on ukulele, very briefly. Since this tune has the distinction of having been played most memorably by Sonny Rollins on his classic Way Out West album in 1957, it serves to remind us that country and jazz have long been bedfellows in various ways. It’s just a snippet, but this last note rings nicely and suggests that red American and blue America remain brothers, indeed. A timely message in late October of an election year.
That is, of course, the kind of wisdom you get from an old guy, a vehicle who can take you anywhere, musically. E Pluribus Unum, John Scofield.