Even as he became renowned as a jazz guitarist, first as a member of Miles Davis' groundbreaking electric bands and then through a wide-ranging solo career, Scofield never forgot the lessons of his open-eared youth. Over the last few decades he's regularly crossed over into rock and jam-band territory, playing with the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, Medeski Martin & Wood, and Gov't Mule, while occasionally incorporating elements of those genres as well as soul, hip-hop and electronica into his own music.
Now he's exploring the country music that he heard during those formative years for the first time with his new album, Country for Old Men.
While the album's title shows off Scofield's self-deprecating humor, the music itself is a serious though spirited jazz take on country classics by Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and George Jones. The guitarist's band for the occasion, which he'll bring to Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday, features longtime colleagues Larry Goldings (piano and organ), Steve Swallow (bass), and Bill Stewart (drums).
"My mom's from the South, so I had an affinity for the sound of that music even though she wasn't particularly a country music fan," Scofield explained. "Their accents felt not so foreign to me, and I loved the real deep, Appalachian country sound. I thought it was like the blues."
There's certainly precedent for blending jazz and country.
Bob Wills' Texas swing put a western twist on the then-popular big band sound in the 1920s and '30s, while Sonny Rollins famously donned a cowboy hat and gunslinger's belt on the cover of his 1957 collection of country songs, Way Out West. Scofield adds a sly wink to the latter album with his solo ukulele rendition of "I'm an Old Cowhand," which closes his album. The influence of Rollins' version of that song, and Scofield's country inclinations, were also evident on the sprightly "Chap Dance" from his last album, Past Present, a reunion with tenor sax giant Joe Lovano.
The ever-eclectic Scofield takes a variety of approaches to the material on Country for Old Men.
The album opens with George Jones' "Mr. Fool," all its twang and bar-room melancholy intact, complete with a piano solo by Goldings that would pass muster in any honky-tonk. But that's followed by a blistering psych-jazz reimagining of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" that finds Scofield burning up the frets and Goldings offering a ferocious, jagged-edged organ turn. "Hank might have turned over in his grave," Scofield admitted with a chuckle.
The traditional song "Wildwood Flower" becomes the missing link between Appalachian folk and organ-fueled soul-jazz, while Bob Wills' classic "Faded Love" is rendered with a mid-tempo groove that wouldn't feel out of place on a '60s Blue Note album.
"I just love those songs," Scofield said when asked about choosing material for the album. "I thought I could play the melodies to those songs on the guitar and do something with 'em, and it seemed pretty obvious to me how to turn them into straight-ahead jazz. But I'm just a fan of the songs, man, I really am. If you're a human being, how can you not be blown away by a song like 'Mama Tried'? It really puts a lump in your throat."
While there's no singer on Country for Old Men, one school of thought in jazz holds that to truly express the emotion of any song, from an American Songbook standard to a Shania Twain hit, an instrumentalist should know the lyric by heart. Scofield doesn't quite subscribe to that edict, but he allows that the meaning of a song's words can add depth to his playing.
"It's not quite like you're thinking of 'moon in June' while you're playing, but when you know the lyrics, you'll form the notes differently. It's kind of mysterious, but it has to do with loving the music.
You have to really know a song before you can [mess] with it, and as jazz players, our job is to [mess] with the music."