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John Scofield's Country For Old Men — Well Worth a Visit

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Tuesday September 27, 2016

From Arts Fuse

Fuse Music Review: John Scofield’s “Country For Old Men” — Well Worth a Visit
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.

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