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Sco goes country / Paste

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Welcome to Notes From New York, a monthly jazz column by Bill Milkowski that includes observations on the scene along with interview snippets, gossip and gig information.

Perennial poll-winning guitarist John Scofield came up playing with jazz legends like Stan Getz and Chet Baker, Billy Cobham and Miles Davis before launching his own remarkable solo career in the mid-‘80s. Over the decades, while recording for the Enja, Gramavision, Blue Note, Verve and EmArcy labels, the Connecticut-born six-stringer has shown an infinite capacity to swing while also demonstrating an authentic feel for funk, blues and New Orleans second line grooves. His recent collaborations with jam band pioneers Medeski, Martin & Wood, Phil Lesh & Friends and Warren Haynes' Gov't Mule have also revealed his penchant for reaching out to new audiences and exploring new musical avenues. On his latest Impulse! recording, Country for Old Men (the title is a wry reference to the Coen Brothers' 2007 movie No Country for Old Men), the guitar great applies his signature chops to faithful readings of the George Jones classic "Bartender's Blues" along with Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" and Dolly Parton's "Jolene." Elsewhere on this surprising release, Scofield and cohorts (bassist Steve Swallow, keyboardist Larry Goldings, drummer Bill Stewart) take liberties with some country classics, like their unabashedly swinging renditions of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and the Carter Family staple "Wildwood Flower."

The esteemed jazz guitarist reflects on his new musical direction on Country for Old Men: "I always wanted to do a country album. Being a young guitarist in the ‘60s, I checked out all kinds of music, and all kinds of music could be found on regular AM top 40 radio. The better musicians I met when I was a teenager would talk about jazz but also about country and bluegrass as higher forms of playing music. A lot of people were checking out Merle Haggard & The Strangers and Buck Owens & His Buckaroos. There was some serious playing going down with those bands but also just the songs and the great singing in the bluegrass tradition were very attractive to me too."

He explains that George Jones' soulful country singing had an impact on his own guitar phrasing as a jazz player. "For me and a lot of other people, actually, George represents the highest level of a certain kind of real down-home singing. His use of the melisima effect - all those soulful little extra notes - just blows me away. And it's not just George but the whole deep country sound that I love and feel at home with, actually. My mother was from the Deep South and I grew up hearing that sound on her voice so I felt very at home with the way those songs were sung by George Jones and others. You can hear country in my playing and also in my compositions like ‘Best Western' (from 1984‘s Electric Outlet) and ‘Wabash' (from 1987's Loud Jazz), which is based on ‘Wabash Cannonball.' And I also recorded Charlie Rich's ‘Behind Closed Doors' (on 2007‘s This Means That), which is one of the greatest country ballads. It's just so much fun to play like that. Some of these country songs allow the swing to happen and for real jazz to come about. And I really like that style where the two can come together."