Boz Scaggs never once looked at the audience during a recent early set at the Blue Note. Both when he spoke and when he sang, his eyes gazed upward, over the heads of the crowd, as if he were communing with a spirit hovering near the ceiling. Yet despite the lack of eye contact this was as intimate a performance as one could ever hope for. Drawing from his new album of standards and ballads, Speak Low (Decca), from his considerable catalog and various songs at large, Scaggs turned the venerable New York club into a cozy living room-the only things that could have made it toastier in there would have been a fireplace and a mug of hot cocoa.
Scaggs has always been a class act. Back in the mid-’70s, his enormously successful Silk Degrees album brought a new suave sophistication to the R&B/rock mix-it was entirely appropriate that Scaggs regularly performed black-tie concerts in San Francisco during those years when he was on top; this was not jeans-and-a-T-shirt music. His embrace of the traditional jazz vocal is relatively new: Speak Low follows 2003’s But Beautiful, Scaggs’ entrée into the Great American Songbook arena that has also proven successful for such fellow aging rockers as Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt. Although But Beautiful, released on an indie label, floated under the radar commercially, it proved a wise artistic direction for Scaggs: He seems more at home in this milieu than most other rockers who’ve taken that course; his voice is a natural fit for the smoky standards and wistful ballads of the bygone pre-rock era.