Curtis Stigers: Curtis Plays Around

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Curtis Stigers
By Norman Seeff
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Curtis Stigers
By Norman Seeff

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You've been lied to about Curtis Stigers.

I know, because I'm one of many reporters who have long been fueling a popular misconception about him. Twice in the past three years, in these very pages, I've reviewed albums by the chiseled Idahoan singer/saxophonist. Both times I told of his early-'90s pop-rock stardom and how he decided to jump off the gravy train to pursue a comparatively impecunious life in jazz. True enough, but more than a little misleading. Growing up in Boise, Stigers never harbored fantasies of becoming a stadium-filling rocker. Nor did he have his sights set on becoming the next Mark Murphy (though, fortunately for us, he seems well on his way to doing just that). His youthful musical influences were far too eclectic to suggest a specific career path.

"I never wanted to do just one thing," Stigers says in that gravelly baritone that is so distinctly his. "I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Elton John and Chick Corea and Dave Brubeck and Sinatra and all the jazz singers. I certainly made a distinction between one and the other, but I wanted to learn to sing like B.B. King just as much as I wanted to sing like Ella Fitzgerald. I wanted to be Robert Plant and much as I wanted to be Gene Ammons."

It was, however, another Gene who helped steer Stigers more specifically toward jazz. Shortly after the 1974 dissolve of the Three Sounds, Gene Harris (who, like Stigers, would later find a welcome home at Concord, and invited Stigers to guest on his '96 spiritual album In His Hands) took up semiretirement in Boise. Stigers, only 15 at the time, found himself under the wing of the legendary pianist, and Harris continued as his teacher and mentor for more than half a decade.

By the mid-'80s, the 20-something Stigers felt he was ready to take Manhattan. About three weeks after settling in New York, he recalls getting "a call from Gene who said, 'Hey Curtis, I'm playing at a club on Third Street. Come down and I'll put you on the guest list.' I showed up, having never been to a jazz club in New York, and it was the Blue Note, and he's playing with Ray Brown. I mean, I knew he was famous, but that's when it dawned on me who this guy Gene Harris was that I grew up playing with. I listened to the show and met Ray Brown and hung out in the dressing room and it was just fantastic. At the end of the night they started a jam session and Gene said, 'Go up there and sing.' Playing in the jam session was a certain saxophone player-I really don't want to say who it was, but he was one of the Young Lions; an alto player of the same generation of Wynton and Branford. As soon as I walked on stage, he shook his head and walked off. And it was a great lesson. That's when I realized that just because you know Gene Harris doesn't mean you can walk on to the Blue Note stage and sing."

Stigers soon realized, too, that Manhattan wasn't overflowing with opportunities for neophyte jazz vocalists. "There was," he remembers, "nowhere for a singer to go. The only real option was to sing in a cabaret club like Don't Tell Mama, and that's awful because they want you to sing, like, Barbra Streisand. So, I ended up in this strange, yuppie restaurant [Wilson's] on the Upper West Side, singing in front of a jazz trio on Sunday nights. Because I didn't have any choice, I had to carve out my own path and make up my own band, and fortunately it somehow seemed to work. We were a jazz group but experimenting with a new way to do it by not just covering Charlie Parker and Chet Baker songs, but also singing Drifters tunes and Donald Fagen tunes. We were all too young to know that you weren't supposed to do that!"

Stigers' uptown weekend gigs caught the attention of folks at Arista. In 1990, he was signed by the label's powerhouse mogul, Clive Davis, and reshaped as a soft-rock singer. A year later, Stigers' eponymous debut album took off like a rocket, spawning the Top 10 hit "I Wonder Why" and selling nearly two million copies. But Stigers quickly realized the disc's phenomenal success was a double-edged sword: "When I first got the record deal, I said to myself, 'OK, Clive Davis tells me he loves me for my art. So I'm going to make a pop record and then I'll be able to make a jazz record. I'm go to be able to follow my muse and pursue my musical instincts. Once I got done making the first record, I realized he didn't love me for my art. He just wanted me to do the same damn thing over and over and over again. I could have turned right around and made that second record and done songs by people I didn't really want to do songs by and worked with producers who really didn't move me, but it made me physically sick."

Stigers also points out that, once on top (and touring with the likes of Elton John, Eric Clapton and Bonnie Raitt), his goal wasn't suddenly to force a jazz album down Davis' throat. "All I wanted to do with the second album," he says, "was to try and turn left. My first album was a middle-of-the-road pop-soul record. But I really wanted to be John Hiatt or Van Morrison, not Michael Bolton. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter with blues, soul and folk overtones, but Davis wasn't buying that either."

After an acrimonious split with Arista, Stigers spent "five or six years of really fighting for my artistic life" while guesting on albums by such varied performers as Al Green, Jules Shear and Julia Fordham as well as contributing to the Grammy-nominated homage Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the '60s and the all-star Carole King tribute Tapestry Revisited. He also toured with the likes of Jimmy Scott, Chuck Mangione, Cleo Laine and Randy Brecker before making a brief pit stop at Columbia for the underappreciated folk-rock album Brighter Days. Hardscrabble as the mid-to-late '90s were for Stigers, he can now look back on those creatively chaotic years with both sagacity and humor, as evidenced by his "How Could a Man Take Such a Fall," penned with his pianist pal Larry Goldings. The opening track on his sophomore Concord album, 2002's Secret Heart, it cunningly tells, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a pop icon's startling freefall from the land of limousines and movie stars.

Finally, as the new millennium dawned, Stigers landed at a record label he could truly call home. The appeal of working with California-based Concord, long admired for its nurturing of such diverse vocal talents as Nnenna Freelon, Karrin Allyson, Michael Feinstein, Monica Mancini and Peter Cincotti and for its late-career support of Mel Torme, Carmen McRae and Rosemary Clooney, is "simple" he says. "They let me make records. Sure there are certain frustrations of being at a small jazz label, and that's basically lack of money and muscle. But they're good folks-decent people who love music. They say, 'Go and make a great record and bring it to us.' They just get out of the way. It's a great process. The only thing that's frustrating is when they say, 'How much is it going to cost?' and I say, 'This much' and they say, 'No, no, less!' So I cut a few corners and figure out how to make a record for $30,000 instead of $300,000."

Baby Plays Around, Stigers' inaugural Concord disc (2001), was an impressively robust but relatively safe outing. "Yeah," he admits, "That first record was all about saying 'Hey! Guess what? I can play jazz!' Basically, apart from 'Baby Plays Around,' a Randy Newman tune ['Marie'] and one original, it was all standards. I wasn't ready to start experimenting. I just wanted to establish that this is who I am-and don't call me Rod Stewart or Linda Ronstadt. I didn't have the guts yet to put myself way out on a limb."

Echoes of Mark Murphy, who Stigers eagerly embraces as a major influence, are evident throughout. "The first time I met Mark," he gleefully relates, "he'd just heard me sing and said, 'Well, that was great. Now, throw all my records away.' I was singing exactly like him, and I did have to put his stuff aside for a while. But his influence will always be there because he does such great things. His phrasing is so perfect, and the way he sings a ballad just murders me."

A year later came the bolder Secret Heart, with Stigers mixing Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Victor Young with Ron Sexsmith's sizzling title track, Steve Earle's bleakly nostalgic "Hometown Blues," two originals-"How Could a Man" and the Harris-in-Boise homage "Swingin' Down at 10th & Main"-and a eulogistic "Sweet Kentucky Ham" that lays bare his enormous admiration for Dave Frishberg. ("He is so brilliant," says Stigers. "If theme records didn't annoy me so much, I'd do a Dave Frishberg album.")

It is, however, his latest Concord release, You Inspire Me, that elevates Stigers to the tiny circle of bona fide male jazz singers that includes elder statesman Murphy, Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, perhaps Harry Connick Jr.-he's had his membership revoked and reinstated so often, it's sometimes hard to tell-and disappointingly few others. Building on Secret Heart's solid foundation, he made the potentially risky decision to devote almost the entire new album to contemporary material. "I don't usually read reviews," he explains, "or think about them too much, but there was a review [of Secret Heart] in Mojo magazine in England and the writer said, 'One wonders what it would be like if Stigers would do a whole album of songs like this.' And I thought, yeah, that would be pretty ballsy, and I could easily fall flat on my face and sound like Bill Murray's lounge singer from Saturday Night Live. It took me about six months to figure out how to do it. The real breakthrough was hearing [drummer] Matt Wilson perform with Dr. Lonnie Smith at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Matt is somehow able to bring his whole self to the party-his incredible sense of humor, the influence of his upbringing in the same generation as me listening to rock 'n' roll and country and folk and soul as well as being a serious student of jazz, and his ability to play straightahead jazz as well or better than any drummer on the planet. At the same time, he's not afraid to get wacky and throw in elements that aren't pure jazz. That was an epiphany for me."

With Wilson there on 11 cuts, and Goldings alongside him, as pianist and co-producer, Stigers whittled a list of more than a hundred tunes down to 12, settling on works by such disparate songwriting heroes as Irving Berlin, Merle Haggard, John Sebastian, Ray Davies, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman and Joe Jackson. The consistently dynamic results-with nary a trace of Bill Murray-extend from a steamy "I Feel Fine" and a percolating "Fools in Love" to a spicily suggestive "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?" and a predatory "Tired of Waiting for You" that's bursting with sexual hunger. Elsewhere, there's a coolly cynical, seven-minute cover of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and a reading of Haggard's "Crazy Moon" with distinct Willie Nelson overtones. "I love Willie Nelson," Stigers confesses. "I saw Honeysuckle Rose about 30 times when I was a kid, partly because Amy Irving was in it but mostly because of the way he delivers a song. I wholeheartedly claim Willie Nelson as an influence both as a writer and as a singer. He's an American original and a genius."

Now with three increasingly dynamic Concord albums under his belt, what's next for Stigers? "I'm thinking polka!" he laughs. "Actually, I do have a list of modern standards a mile long for the next record, but I'm still a couple of months away from figuring out who's going to play on it and what it's going to be. I'm waiting for another epiphany like hearing Matt in Detroit. Also, I've always wanted to make a piano-vocal record with Larry. There's something about singing with him that is so moving. I'm a huge fan of the Tony Bennett-Bill Evans album [from 1975] with "When In Rome" and "But Beautiful" and "My Foolish Heart." That record is such a part of me. I'm not saying I'd cover it, but to do a piano-vocal album like that would be a complete self-indulgence. And then there's the wild card of whatever pops up on the horizon. Just recently I got my first chance to sing with an orchestra with strings and I really loved it. It was like sex! So maybe I'll make a record with the Vanguard Big Band."

Yet no matter where Stigers' splendidly serpentine path leads, he remains determined that it not intersect itself. "Once I've done something," he insists, "I can't do that same thing again. I've never done the same thing twice in my career and I hope I never, ever will."

Originally published in March 2004

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