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.
Speak Low had its genesis one evening when Scaggs happened to be walking past the Blue Note and his ears caught the sound of Gil Goldstein’s nonet within. Scaggs entered the club and knew immediately that this was the sound he’d been looking for. He hired Goldstein to arrange what became Speak Low and the result is even more pristine than its predecessor, a true gem. Goldstein’s arrangements on the new CD, reminiscent of those of another Gil-Evans, in whose orchestra he worked-are bold and daring but extremely accessible, both respectful of open space and the innovative, judicious filling of same.
Goldstein was onboard at the Blue Note as bandleader, keyboardist and arranger as well, and he and Scaggs together have admirably adapted their concepts for the stage. The band-Paul McCandless (of Oregon fame), who chose liberally from an arsenal including English horn, oboe and various woodwinds; Bob Sheppard (the only holdover from the album other than Goldstein) handled saxophones and flutes; Steve Rodby played bass; Jason Lewis, behind a sound booth and out of sight from the audience, banged drums and percussion; and the versatile vocalist Ms. Mone’t provided not only backups but harmonies and some leads-was impeccable, fleshing out the tunes with arrangements that veered from expansive to subtly understated.
Alternating between acoustic and electric guitars and no ax at all, Scaggs went after nuance in his vocals, his expressions carefully constructed. He opened with “Dindi,” a Jobim bossa that set the casual mood for the evening and confirmed the wisdom of inviting McCandless and Sheppard into the band, but it was the second tune, “Lowdown,” that made the audience Scaggs’. The top-five hit from Silk Degrees was well suited for the treatment these experienced musicians were able to give it, faithful to the original but delivered with greater finesse and a hint of jazz élan. Scaggs’ guitar solo was well adapted to its new setting and his vocal, 32 years after the original was a radio staple, was every bit as chill and delicious-a bit weathered, to be sure, but snug. An extended “Harbor Lights,” another one from the back catalog, featured Goldstein on accordion and took on a decidedly Spanish flavor.
Scaggs obviously relished playing the standards though. Lorenz Hart’s “She Was Too Good To Me” spotlighted Goldstein and Sheppard, and Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “I Wish I Knew” gave bassist Rodby and vocalist Mone’t extra breathing room. The perfectly synced horns added a wash of colors to Goldstein’s windy and wistful arrangement of the latter, and afforded Scaggs a chance to lay back and observe, with noticeable glee, what was being created around him.
Oddly, Scaggs never did perform the title track from Speak Low. For an encore he instead introduced Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” then slipped into “Thanks to You,” a song co-written with David Paich for Scaggs’ Dig album. The release date of that record happened to be 9-11-01 but at the Blue Note Scaggs dedicated the hopeful number to Barack Obama. Whether he meant it this way or not, it was as if to say, once again, that change is often just what’s needed.