For Curtis Stigers, pop goes the jazz tradition
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
ASPEN – Curtis Stigers looks every bit the contemporary jazz singer: handsome, hip and well-put-together. Onstage, where he often wears a jacket and tie, he typically is surrounded by a piano, standup bass and drums. The jazzman image is completed by a saxophone, and it’s not just an ornament – Stigers blows sax in addition to singing.
Beneath the look, though, things are not so straightforward. In 2009, Stigers received an Emmy nomination for “This Life,” a song he wrote and recorded for “Sons of Anarchy.” A smoky jazz number wasn’t going to do music – “Sons of Anarchy” is about an outlaw motorcycle club in California – so Stigers came up with a dusty country-rocker as the theme song. The tune might have been inspired some by Hayes Carll, the Texas country singer-songwriter who has become a favorite of Stigers’.
“I have Hayes Carll’s CD in my car, and I keep trying to take it out. And I keep putting it back in,” Stigers said, adding that all of Carll’s albums are embedded in his mind.
Stigers’ latest album, last year’s “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” features interpretations of songs by Bob Dylan, Steve Earle and, of course, Carll. There is also a tune, “You Are Not Alone,” written by Jeff Tweedy for singer Mavis Staples. Stigers’ knowledge of Tweedy and the modern rock band he fronts, Wilco, goes deeper than that one song. Stigers breaks down the history of Tweedy back to his pre-Wilco group, Uncle Tupelo, and explains that when Uncle Tupelo broke up, he followed Son Volt, another splinter group, before getting heavily into Wilco.
“Let’s Go Out Tonight,” Stigers said, “is a jazz record. The players are jazz musicians. But there’s a lot of soul. And it’s a singer-songwriter record – even though I didn’t write any of the songs. I’ve found a place, musically, that touches on everything I like.”
One record, though, isn’t going to cover all the styles that Stigers enjoys or that he has played over his career. Stigers, 47, says he grew up on radio, “when you’d hear Neil Young and Deep Purple and Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. So it didn’t occur to me to play one type of music.”
Instead, it seems as if he tried to play every kind of music. He’d play clarinet and sax in school bands, in his hometown of Boise, Idaho and then head home to his drum kit and bang along to Led Zeppelin and Sex Pistols albums. He was a clarinetist in the Treasure Valley Youth Symphony. By his teens he was playing drums in a punk cover band. Monday nights during his senior year of high school were devoted to blues band. When the noted pianist Gene Harris moved to Idaho, Stigers began sitting in on saxophone during Harris’ Tuesday-night jams at the Idanha Hotel.
Stigers spent one year studyingmusic at Columbia Basin State in eastern Washington before heading, at 21, to New York City in search of top-notch musicianship. He wasn’t an outstanding jazz saxophonist himself – “I’m not really a jazz saxophonist. I can fake it. I’m a singer who plays rhythm and blues sax,” he says of his current abilities – but the sax set him apart from all the guitarists and keyboardists at places such as Dan Lynch’s Blues Bar, in Greenwich Village. He frequently was asked to sit in with various groups, and when the singer got tired or ran out of material, Stigers would step to the microphone.
The big break came in 1989 with a regular Sunday-night gig at Wilson’s, an Upper West Side yuppie bar where Stigers would appear in a jazz trio and throw Steely Dan and soul tunes in with jazz standards. Record companies competed for his attention. His 1991 self-titled debut, which became a hit, especially in the U.K., featured almost all original songs.
“I was always a fan of people who wrote their own songs,” Stigers, who opened a three-night stand on Friday at Jazz Aspen’s JAS Cafe Downstairs @ the Nell series, said. “I loved the idea of someone who was not just a pop star but wrote their own tunes. Elton John was a big hero.”
For “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” Stigers wasn’t up to writing his own tunes. He had gone through a tough divorce, and while he wanted to address the emotions he was feeling, they were too close for him to write about. So, with producer Larry Klein, he searched for songs that told his story.
“The album tells my story so well, the pain, the heartache of a 20-year marriage ending,” he said. “We found songs that were autobiographical to me. It’s probably the most personal album I’ve made, and not one of the songs was mine.”
The album is also an effort to condense the typical jazz album. The instrumental solos are infrequent and short, the singing direct and unflashy.
“Those great moments on great jazz records, we tried to distill down,” he said. “We tried to make a record that had a lot of those moments, really concentrated.”
Naturally straddling the worlds of jazz and pop, Stigers always has done rock tunes with a jazz approach. Over the past few decades, he has seen that become more commonplace; Klein, his producer, has worked on a series of albums by singer Madeleine Peyroux that put country and pop songs in a jazz-like setting. Brad Mehldau, the spectacular jazz pianist, often covers Radiohead.
“There was awhile where jazz had a big chip on its shoulder toward pop, especially rock ‘n’ roll. They blamed rock for killing jazz,” Stigers said. “But there’s a new generation of jazz people who grew up on Billy Joel and Radiohead. It started to make sense to cover Leonard Cohen. Why would you not cover Leonard Cohen?”
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