OK, let’s not mess around, but is this not the best title of the year, that alone nearly enough to nail it for me as an essential purchase? And John Scofield has the billiest billy goatee ever on the sleeve, delineating this is one cool (old) dude. (Actually I was quite disappointed he is only 64.) But don’t get carried away here, this is not country music in any received sense of the word, country in anything other than the songs, which are all instrumental, suggesting some knowledge (and love, probably) of their original. And these versions take the merest slip of melody and fire it up into the sky, a 52 card pick-up, a melange of a snippet here and a snippet there into a, yes, damn it, hard jazz explosion. I know I have now lost most readers with the J word, it seldom getting much of a shout in these pages. But maybe this is the day someone takes a chance. So come on in, the water’s lovely.
Scofield, a.k.a. “Sco,” has been around for yonks. He has played with artists as disparate as Miles Davis, Mavis Staples and Phil Lesh, dallying with blues, fusion, gospel and rock, and has over 50 records to his name, although most easily recognized and well-known for a steadfast brand of bebop. Again, a scary word for rock fans, but think of him as a slightly wackier Bill Frisell, another jazz guitarist on the border of many genres, even if their sounds and tones are quite different. They have, however, and unsurprisingly, collaborated, notably on a version of “House of the Rising Sun” from 2007’s This Meets That, an album also worth checking out for its version of Stones staple “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
So to this, which picks up country standards from way back to WTF, mostly well-covered staples of the genre, the Shania Twain being perhaps the least expected. The first track, a cover of George Jones’ “Mr. Fool,” is probably the most conventional and most faithful to the original. The band of keyboard, bass and drums underpinning is as near to twang as you will get on this record, with the piano being especially sympathetic to the original genre. After that is is chocks away, with the merest hint of core melody kicking off a maelstrom of how Hank never done it, an absolute delight of manic yet melodious, if you concentrate, interpretation, with stunning Hammond chops underlining the salvo of notes from Sco’s guitar. A belter, and standout of the project, less so lonesome as completely cabin fever stir crazy.
“Bartender Blues” gets an unsurprisingly bluesy flavor, the churchy keys from Larry Golding (James Taylor’s sometime musical director) perhaps explaining its inclusion. This album deliberately tricks your expectations between straightish interpretations (“Wayfaring Stranger”) and more free-form interpolations (“Mama Tried”). I guess the safest starter would be “Jolene,” which retains enough truth of the original to scare no horses. Or even “You’re Still the One,” which is the only track that strays anywhere near the dreaded hotel lobby, thankfully avoiding it by throwing in a gorgeously lysergic guitar motif in the middle eight. “Wildwood Flower” is the only one that doesn’t work for me, coming over more John Philip Sousa than the New Orleans marching band Scofield intended. I’m still in two minds about “Red River Valley,” which starts textbook “Red River Rock,” actually the same song when seen by Johnny and the Hurricanes. Yes, it’s great but quite a shock as it starts.
So a fine record and, I would say, a fine introduction, if belated, to the music of this consummate guitarist, and could well make Scofield new fans, even if to consider this cross-over would be stretching a point. The bass and drums (from long-term sidekicks Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart) are solid and dependable throughout, there being a couple of tasteful near solos from the former. (There are no gratuitous entirely bass or drum solo verses, a trope of jazz I can happily live without.) Take that chance on me!
Mr. Fool (George Jones cover)
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (Hank Williams cover)
Bartender Blues (James Taylor cover)
Wildwood Flower (Carter Family cover)
Wayfaring Stranger (Burl Ives cover)
Mama Tried (Merle Haggard cover)
Jolene (Dolly Parton cover)
Faded Love (Bob Wills cover)
Just a Girl I Used to Know (George Jones cover)
Red River Valley (Gene Autry cover)
You’re Still the One (Shania Twain cover)
I’m an Old Cowhand (Bing Crosby cover)
Country for Old Men is available on Amazon.