Jazz singer Curtis Stigers digs beneath the surface of the American Songbook.
Thu Sep 13 2007
Photo by Joachim Gern
The received line on Norah Jones is that she’s secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) hiding her jazzy sophistication under a commercially accessible mixture of loungey torch and twang. Discuss music with singer-songwriter and saxophonist Curtis Stigers, however, and you might get a different interpretation of what Jones is doing, one that suggests that elegance and twanginess are more similar than we might think. “I discovered something while researching songs—particularly Bob Dylan tunes—for my last few jazz albums,” he begins, on the horn from his home state of Idaho. “Classic country songs really aren’t that far off from pop standards, structurally speaking. They adhere to the same verse-verse-bridge-chorus format; you could call it a Southern version of Tin Pan Alley. It’s something I think about when I do ‘Crazy’—which, of course, Willie Nelson wrote for Patsy Cline. It makes a lot of sense that I discovered an older tune like ‘Stardust’ through Willie’s version and not Frank Sinatra’s or Hoagy Carmichael’s.”
If Stigers had stopped at reinterpreting country songs, though, his recent Concord Jazz albums—beginning with 2001’s Baby Plays Around and continuing right up to the new Real Emotional—might not seem so novel. The album titles alone tell the story of an artist looking for potentially swinging repertoire in unlikely places: The inaugural release cites his Elvis Costello cover; 2002’s Secret Heart is named for a piece by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith; 2003’s You Inspire Me comes from Brit roots-rocker Nick Lowe; and the two most recent discs reference Randy Newman (I Think It’s Going to Rain Today was released in 2005). “The joke about my career has always been that I crossed over in the wrong direction,” Stigers laughs, referring to his transformation from a multiplatinum-selling singer-songwriter in the ’90s (he recorded the theme to The Bodyguard) to what used to be called a saloon singer. The new disc begins with a Dylan cover, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” but the most cohesively varied stretch begins a couple of tracks later, when his craggy, burnished baritone follows a soulful Hammond B-3 driven version of Emmylou Harris’s “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now” with Stephin Merritt’s “As You Turn to Go,” and then slides into the early Tom Waits chestnut “San Diego Serenade.”
Stigers is humble about his latest achievements, in deference to those who’d question his jazz credentials as a result of his hit-making phase at Clive Davis’s Arista Records—when his work seemed more like a cross between Michael Bolton and David Sanborn. “I’m not trying to take credit for expanding the American Songbook,” he explains, “because I’m not the only one doing it—Cassandra Wilson comes to mind—and I still love and perform pieces like ‘All the Things You Are’ and ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily.’ But I do think the Songbook is a lot bigger than people give it credit for being. I’m sure [this] perception was born out of the rift that split jazz off from everything else around the time that Elvis Presley, and later the Beatles, got big.”
Stigers has had the unique opportunity to witness the schism from both sides of his career. He arrived in New York City with heavy jam-session skills, which he only put on hold once the majors came calling. “In 1992, I wanted to follow up my hit record with a jazz release,” he explains. “But of course, Clive wouldn’t hear of it. I ended up bringing the company a jazz record to get out of my deal, after some six years of acrimony and frustration. As for now, I kinda expected the jazz community to take a little time coming around to me. My first couple of discs have more conventional standards on them because it was important to me to prove that I wasn’t a dilettante.”
It’s hard to imagine that the singer’s bop is anything but seasoned when he’s onstage with a combo. He’s written a few fine tunes of his own (with brilliant keyboardist and coproducer Larry Goldings), and owing to his prowess as a saxist, Stigers even seems a natural at the dying art of scat singing. “I have no regrets about the music I’ve done,” he says, “but one thing I don’t miss about performing pop is having to scream over a thundering drummer and wailing guitarists. And what I’ve found out from looking for new songs is that the big anthemic power ballads from then aren’t really compatible with what I’m doing now anyway.”
Real Emotional is out now. Curtis Stigers plays the Blue Note Tue 18 and Wed 19.