Earlier this year, guitarist John Scofield won a Grammy for his album, Past Present. Released in 2015, Past Present came on the heels of tough times for Sco—the 2013 passing of his son, Evan, to cancer at age 26. Sco's music on the album was haunting and pained, the ache of a father and a family that endured the worst possible loss.
Sco's new album, Country for Old Men (Impulse), released today, is also groundbreaking, freewheeling work. As the title implies, the album is a bold merger of country classics with jazz improvisation, with Sco's indelible ringing guitar tones backed by keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. There's a saddle-and-stirrups quality to the music here—familiar cowboy tunes, Bakersfield romps, long-neck ballads and countrypolitan covers that Sco delivers with his singular jazz attack. Songs such as Mr. Fool, Mama Tried, Jolene and Faded Love among other classics retain their country soul—but are reconditioned with jagged jazz interpretation. The result is truly remarkable. I can't recall another jazz artist so closely associated with the electric jazz revolution of the 1970s who has attempted such a blend or has pulled it off this artfully and with complete understanding.
Truth be told, all of Sco's "riding partners" here are exceptional. Dig Goldings' frontier church organ on Faded Love and You're Still the One (my favorite), with Sco unleashing herds of ringing metallic jazz lines while holding fast to country's twang and idiom. Swallow and Stewart add just the right jazz energy and touch on all of the tracks. [Photo of Larry Goldings above]
For me, Country for Old Men is Sco's most remarkable album to date. Which is saying something big given his career and landmark recordings. This one, though, is a cut above for me, inventively combining his passion for country and jazz without sacrificing one for the other. There have been plenty of country guitarists in the past who have recorded jazz albums and lots of jazz artist who have taken on country songs. Sco's album is different, forging a new hybrid by addressing country on its level and with with love, without ratcheting down jazz to service country's pop melodies. In the process, both jazz and country are better for it. The album should win both jazz and country Grammys.
When I asked Sco last night why a country album, why now, he said, "I've just always loved real down-home country songs. And it's not a stretch to swing them and turn them into real jazz. I've wanted to do a country record for a long time. It was so important to get Larry, Steve and Bill. They're jazz players all the way but respectful of country music. None of us are country musicians, but we're country fans for sure."
For those downloading Country for Old Men, here are the credits:
1. Mr. Fool (Darrell Edwards / George Jones / Herbie Treece)
2. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams)
3. Bartender's Blues (James Taylor)
4. Wildwood Flower (Joseph Philbrick Webster)
5. Wayfaring Stranger (Traditional)
6. Mama Tried (Merle Haggard)
7. Jolene (Dolly Parton)
8. Faded Love (Bob Wills, John Lee Wills, Billy Jack Wills)
9. Just a Girl I Used to Know (Jack Clement)
10. Red River Valley (Traditional)
11. You're Still the One (Shania Twain / John Robert Lange)
12. I’m an Old Cowhand (Johnny Mercer)
JazzWax tracks: You'll find John Scofield's Country for Old Men (Impulse) here.
JazzWax clips: Dig this small film on the album at Sco's site (go here).
Here's Sco and his trio taking on Merle Haggard's Mama Tried. Gosh I wish Merle were still around to hear this one...
And here's Merle performing his original, so you have the context...
To read my Anatomy of a Song interview with Merle for the Wall Street Journal, go here.