Guitarist John Scofield visits country on his new album


  • Nicholas Suttle
  • John Scofield

A few weeks ago guitarist John Scofield performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival with one of his greatest bands, his recently reconfigured quartet with the sublime saxophonist Joe Lovano. That project showcases his deep engagement with postbop, but over the last couple of decades the guitarist has repeatedly shown interests ranging far beyond that. He's explored funk in collaborations with Medeski Martin & Wood, surveyed New Orleans-style R&B, and exploited his chops for the jam-band crowd, whether leading his own Uberjam project or working with Gov't Mule. Last week Scofield dropped a new album that pivots in yet another direction: country music.

On the slyly titled Country for Old Men (Impulse), the guitarist leads a top-notch quartet (pianist and organist Larry Goldings, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Bill Stewart) through a dozen country and country-related tunes. (I won't place Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" in the same ballpark as George Jones's "Mr. Fool" or the standard "Wildwood Flower," while Johnny Mercer's "I'm an Old Cowhand"—dispatched by Scofield in a 30-second ukulele interpretation—is country only in its lyrical content.) The marriage of country and jazz goes back to the earliest days of the recording industry, when repertoire was frequently shared by disparate genres. During that time, western swing inherently applied jazz concepts to country songs. In more recent years guitarist Bill Frisell has been fruitfully applying the natural twang of his tone and phrasing to a large body of Americana.

Scofield has also had some twang in his sound for many years. He tackled the Buck Owens classic "Cryin' Time" on his 2005 album That's What I Say and the Charlie Rich tune "Behind Closed Doors" on his 2007 album This Meets That. But he goes all the way with his latest project, which performs next Wednesday evening at Space in Evanston. Still, Scofield and company are playing jazz, even if the group's repertoire comes from another tradition. There's a limber, rollicking groove on the band's take on the Merle Haggard gem "Mama Tried" that telegraphs country, but after the theme is stated the performance turns into a straight-up swinger, with brisk cymbal work from Stewart and a walking bass feel by Swallow. The group's reading of the Dolly Parton masterpiece "Jolene" summons the spirit of John Coltrane, especially the playing of Goldings who tears up the progression with a kind of modal attack that's pure McCoy Tyner. Below you can check out their version of another George Jones classic, "Bartender's Blues," where the singular phrasing of the Possum is impressively translated by Scofield's note bending.

Today's playlist:
Icepick, Amaranth (Astral Spirits/Monofonus Press)
Del Sol Quartet, Robert Erickson: Complete String Quartets (New World)
Jason Ajemian's Daydream Full Lifestyles, Protest Heaven (482 Music)
Mekons, The Curse of the Mekons/Fun '90 (Collector's Choice)
Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi, Sora Wo Tobu!  (King, Japan)

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