John Scofield’s Country For Old Men would be an ideal subject for those blindfold tests where listeners need to identify details of an undisclosed piece of music. No doubt the inimitable blend of staccato blues and jazz fluidity in this esteemed guitarist could be readily pinpointed, as might some or all of his accompanists (who’ve regularly appeared on his records over the years): keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart.
But nailing the songs the quartet plays here might well be a greater challenge altogether, even perhaps, if you’re sufficiently knowledgeable in the country genre to recognize “Mr. Fool” as a George Jones number just by way of Goldings’ Floyd Cramer-like piano tinkling. Scofield and company’s wry take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” becomes increasingly familiar as the seven-minute take proceeds, but the guitarist still only teases the melodic theme to a point within this speedy shuffle.
John Scofield’s thirty-one seconds of “I’m An Old Cowhand” is something altogether different or so it seems on the surface: the track’s comprised of just him playing ukulele. But on this truncated track, as on the other eleven here, he demonstrates the same abiding affection for this song—and by extension this genre— that allows him to simultaneously respect and reinvent such tried and true elements of this American music.
The fundamental beauty of the record may well be that Scofield’s accompanist revere and rediscover as they play along with him, all the while maintaining the same healthy detachment. Goldings uses organ to guide himself and his comrades on “Wildwood Flower,” while Swallow uses his bass as more than just ballast during “Wayfaring Stranger.” And while Stewart can be the most imperceptible of percussionists, he makes his presence felt, insistently and with his whole kit, on Bob Wills’ “Faded Love.”
And while that understated approach is the essence of good jazz, that virtue comes through as much in the choice of the material as the musicianship. On Country for Old Men, contemporary tunes such James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” and Shania Twain’s “You’re Still the One” reside next to Dolly Parton’s signature song “Jolene,” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried; ” throughout, John Scofield and co. conjure an all-enveloping atmosphere that should transcend preconceptions.