John Scofield ‘Country For Old Men’ (Impulse!) 5/5

john-scofieldThis album comes hot on the heels of Scofield’s 2015 album ‘Past Present’ featuring Joe Lovano. That album was Grammy Award-winning. Is another Award in prospect for this album? We have to wait to find out.
John Scofield has worked with many of the jazz greats of the last forty years including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, George Duke and more. He is as at ease playing bebop as he is playing jazz fusion, funk, blues, soul, rock and now…….country.
Jazz has long appropriated songs from other genres to work its magic on and country music is no exception. Consider the blue-grass and country and western influences on guitarist Bill Frisell’s ‘Nashville’ from 1996. Whilst Frisell has made a career out of incorporating elements of various American roots music styles including country, folk and bluegrass, Scofield has more often chosen to plough a different furrow.
For his forty-sixth release (and his second for Impulse!) Scofield has built on the ‘Nashville’ foundation and produced a Country music album. But, of course, with Scofield things are never quite that straightforward. Joining Scofield are his regular band-mates, Steve Swallow on bass guitar and Bill Stewart behind the drums. Along for the ride this time is Larry Goldings on piano and, crucially, Hammond organ.
It’s not often these days that music so easily raises a smile. But this one does it for me. From the clever pun of the album title which also, apparently, alludes to the Coen Brother’s 2007 film ‘No Country For Old Men’, to the witty guitar playing of the band leader, unadorned by effects. The relaxed tempo of the opening track ‘Mr Fool’ has a typically bluesy feel, with Steve Swallow underpinning proceedings in an exemplary manner.

Just as you think you know what to expect, the group launches into ‘ I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry’. This Hank Williams song has never sounded so good. But the song itself is quickly dispensed with and we are off into wildly swinging territory. Shards of sound springing from the guitar with wild abandon grounded by Hammond organ and Steve Swallow doing what he does best: walking the walk. When it’s Golding’s turn to solo we get some very strange otherworldly sounds which nonetheless seem to fit perfectly. The whole group were having great fun with this one.

Now I’m certainly no devotee of country music and many of the twelve songs on offer here were previously unknown to me. I’m not familiar with James Taylor’s ‘Bartender’s Blues’, but what a treat, down-home blues-drenched with the organ reminiscent at times of a gospel choir.

‘Wayfaring Stranger’, taken in a sort of New Orleans style includes a short, but sweet solo from Swallow. ‘Mama Tried’ is another swinging rendition. Then, goodness me, we get Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’. The theme is played relatively ‘straight’ the first time around then we get the group breaking into 6/8. Great playing all round, but again, for me, Swallow steals the show with his solo.

Having recovered my composure after the Dolly Parton track, we are treated to Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still The One’. Certainly not a song which one would have thought particularly conducive to a jazz treatment, but it’s transformed in the hands of these masters. Throw in the rock n’ roll stylings of ‘Red River Valley’ and the relaxed treatment of ‘Just a Girl I Used to Know’, with another feature for Steve Swallow and we have a near perfect album.

It almost seems churlish to complain about the 31 second rendition of ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’ played by Scofield on Ukulele, but I just can’t see the point of it.

I mentioned that the music put a smile on my face and it stayed there until the last track. I’m sure that Scofield and friends were also beaming from ear to ear during the recording session.

Alan Musson