Country for Old Men is surely going to stand as one of the best, as well as among the most unusual, recordings of the year.
John Scofield Quartet featuring Larry Goldings, Steve Swallow, and Bill Stewart at the Berklee Performance Center, Boston, MA on September 23.
By Michael Ullman
Since his first session in 1974, guitarist John Scofield, has been recorded close to three hundred times. He also informed the boisterous crowd at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center that he was no stranger to country music. That evening he was celebrating his new disc, Country for Old Men (Impulse), which came out that day. He told us he’d been playing one of its songs, “Just a Girl I Used to Know,” for years. The guitarist was in a bemused mood about the release: the fact that the disc is now available, he suggested, meant that young people would somehow manage to download it for free. In a similarly sardonically jocular vein, he explained that the title of the disc was not inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men — it was a nod to the likely makeup of his listeners. He instructed us “to just look at yourselves.” (As usual at Berklee jazz concerts, the crowd seemed to be half students and half geezers.) He then proceeded to play ravishingly lyrical versions of well known songs, from “Red River Valley” (“We used to sing this one in school”) to a stomping rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Everything he played on Friday night can be found — in slightly less expansive versions — on Country for Old Men, which is surely going to stand as one of the best, as well as among the most unusual, recordings of the year.
Despite Buddy Rich’s possibly apocryphal sneer that he was allergic to country music, it’s no longer chancy for a jazz artist to play country or, in fact, to switch back and forth with ease, as does singer Norah Jones. Maybe it was Ray Charles who changed that in the sixties with his series of wildly successful country records: on That’s What I Say, his 1995 tribute to Charles, Scofield recreated a number of the singer’s country hits, such as “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “You Don’t Know Me.” No one objected. Still, Country for Old Men is his first disc dedicated wholly to the likes of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Hank Williams, the Carter Family, and Dolly Parton.
The most tender performance at Berklee, virtually sung by Scofield on guitar over the church-like held chords of Larry Goldings’ organ, was “Bartender’s Blues.” This song, a hit when recorded by George Jones in 1978, was written by singer-songwriter James Taylor. Musical worlds overlap. Of course, the bartender is (of course) unhappy: “Now, the smoke fills the air/ In this honky-tonk bar/ And I’m thinking ’bout where I’d rather be/ But I burned all my bridges/ I sank all my ships/And I’m stranded at the edge of the sea.” Scofield, whose tone has always been full and rich and whose phrasing often steps subtly behind the beat, seemed entranced by this song’s slow-moving melody: each sustained note was shaped to suggest a warbling voice. At the end of his improvised chorus, he hung on to one note he so that he made it flutter like a flag in a warm breeze. This concentration has been a trademark; even when he played funk with Miles Davis, Scofield managed to make every note matter.
At Berklee, Scofield began in a tender vein with another George Jones hit, “Mr. Fool.” (In this one, the singer promises not to stay foolishly attached to the creature who, of course, dumped him.) There were moments of humor too in the Berklee performance (as there are on the recording). After reminding the old men in the audience that we used to sing “Red River Valley” in school, he asked Goldings to introduce the familiar folk song high up on the organ over a thumping back beat and wacky mandolin-like trills from the guitar. It was a delightfully manic spoof. Then, immediately after the first chorus, the band switched to a loping 4/4 during the improvisations. There was no nostalgia here, as Scofield substituted chords and ripped through an increasingly excited solo.
In fact, it seemed that whenever one might expect a sentimental performance Scofield arranged an ironic twist. He introduced Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by reciting a little of the lyric: he had momentarily forgotten the title. Then the band played a fast, intense, maybe even nervous, introductory chorus while Scofield seemed to be trying, despite the hubbub, to squeeze in the familiar melody: it was like catching snatches of a song while riding on a subway train. His band couldn’t be better. Bassist Steve Swallow is a national treasure, Goldings and Stewart play with vibrant enthusiasm, flexible and even virtuosic. Goldings’ solo on “I’m So Lonesome” kept the rattled mood going with a series of short phrases and eerie, horror-movie chords. Stewarts’ short solos were highlights: when trading fours, he seemed to be finishing Scofield’s phrases rather than providing a contrast. (It struck me as I listened to him that I’ve never heard a drum solo on a country record.)
I was equally pleased with the band’s rendition of the slightly hysterical song “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, in which a woman pleads with the beautiful babe Jolene not to steal her man, repeating her adversary’s name with ever increasing urgency: “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene.” For once, Scofield played a more sedate version than the original (Norah Jones has recorded this song with the Little Willies.) With its beautifully etched melodies, Scofield’s version of country is deeply felt, but it is also jazzy in its harmonies and in the swing of its improvisations. The joy of the quartet – as it ripped through a Hank Williams tune that the singer treated with the utmost earnestness — was exhilarating. The musicians enjoyed their transgressions, as did the audience. The band got two standing ovations. I expect the recording will bring listeners to their feet as well.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.