Singer/songwriter Curtis Stigers will release a new album on 25 February looking back on 30 years since he first achieved major commercial recognition. He begins a UK tour with five nights at Ronnie Scott’s from 24 Feb. Feature/interview by Charles Rees.
It is 30 years since Curtis Stigers took the popular music charts by storm with his singles “You’re All That Matters to Me”, “I Wonder Why” and “Never Saw a Miracle”. In the intervening years he established himself as a noteworthy soul/pop performer and received wide acclaim for his performance of “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding”, which he recorded for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard. He continued on this road throughout the ’90s, releasing albums Time Was in 1995, and Brighter Days in 1999.
When the new millennium came, Stigers reinvented himself as a vocalist geared more towards jazz: In 2001 he released Baby Plays Around, featuring plenty of established jazz artists, from Randy Brecker and Adam Nussbaum to Dennis Irwin, Bill Stewart and several others. He has since gone on to record a dozen albums with a select group of musicians who have gradually evolved into his band.
One of the most observable traits of Stigers’ recording career is that he has continuously evolved, going from one project to another and rarely looking back, certainly not choosing to live off the earlier successes of his career, unlike so many of his contemporaries. This has led him to record projects as diverse as an album with the Danish Radio Big Band of songs and arrangements made famous by Frank Sinatra, to the theme song for FX’s hit television series Sons of Anarchy, and a plethora of songs that have appeared on his studio albums by writers such as Randy Newman, Paul Simon and Tom Waits.
Regular patrons of his frequently sold-out performances will however be well aware that Curtis Stigers has not forgotten the songs that made him famous. Rather, these songs have evolved and matured alongside him and the musicians he has worked with. For the first time, Stigers’ has recorded these reimaginings and will release them on his upcoming record, This Life…
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London Jazz News: What was your process for reimagining the songs on this album?
Curtis Stigers: We have been playing these songs for the past 20 years as a jazz quartet or a jazz quintet… I wanted to find ways to play my songs from my pop era in a way that would work with the new band, and so they’ve just grown. With my touring band, which has evolved over the years, we’ve just worked these things out at soundchecks and on stage… we’d be playing it and something would go a little differently than it had the night before, and after the show, over a glass of wine, we’d say ‘yeah! Let’s keep that’ or ‘Let’s never do that again.’
LJN: Over the course of 30 years, how have you prevented yourself and audiences from growing bored of the songs?
CS: Well, in the case of “You’re All That Matters to Me”, there have been four completely different arrangements over the years. There was a while where we played it as if a jazz quintet played a UB40 cover… [Stigers sings an example]. I actually always thought, God I wish UB40 had been young enough or the song had come around early enough so that they could have recorded that; I always thought they could have had a huge hit with that and put my daughter through college. So that’s the way, just by changing things if get bored with something… The last thing I want to do is a karaoke version of myself. It’s a good way to make a living, getting to play music and changing your own songs around… I’m pretty lucky.
LJN: Everyone knows the screaming sax solos you played in songs like “I Wonder Why”, but that’s not so much a part of the way you perform anymore. How has your audience responded to your evolution as an artist?
CS: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised at my audience’s ability to follow me down roads that maybe other audiences wouldn’t have. “I Wonder Why” does sound different, it doesn’t start with the big alto sax thing; it starts very quietly, just piano and vocal, kind of a gospel/jazz thing. Eventually, I play a saxophone solo, but it doesn’t have that big… [he sings example] because it just doesn’t work for me anymore. I like the (original) record, but it came time to change it up. I do all those songs in different keys now: I don’t play “I Wonder Why” nearly as high as I used to. I used to really like to reach the very top of my range as a singer… I can still hit those notes, but it’s a chore, so I’ve moved them down to a place where I can sing the songs more intimately. But yeah, my fans, they follow me. They were a big impetus for me re-recording “I Wonder Why” and “You’re All That Matters to Me”. When I’d sign CDs after a show, they’d come up and say ‘you’ve got to make a record with those new arrangements’. So when I decided to look back after 30 years, the idea of covering my own songs the way I play them live came partly from requests from my fans.
LJN: It sounds like you were trying to achieve a real ‘live feel’ with this record…
CS: Yeah, absolutely! My records for the last 20 years, at least the ones I’ve produced, tend to be kind of live records. We go in (the studio) and we play, we track live. I’ll go back and I’ll fix a vocal here and there if I sang a word or a line wrong, or little tuning fixes here and there where I’ll go back and re-sing it. I tend to go back and play my saxophone for a couple of reasons: one, I’m not crazy about my saxophone playing so I always think ‘I can do that better’ or ‘why did I play that note’; but also, I go back and forth between singing and playing sax solos and the microphones tend to affect each other strangely, so the sax sound always seems to suffer when I’m in there singing so I want to go back and fix it.
LJN: Let’s talk about you as a saxophonist. The fact you play sax in addition to singing obviously makes you stand out. You even played at Bill Clinton’s inauguration alongside Gerry Mulligan, Michael Brecker, David Sanborn…
CS: Yeah, that was insane.
LJN: But you often talk about how you’re uncomfortable playing alongside all the amazing musicians you get in for your sessions. So why do you keep coming back to the sax? Is it a personal love, is it for the fans…?
CS: Well, I’m a saxophone payer. I’m not a jazz saxophone player; I’m a rhythm and blues saxophone player, and I’m pretty good at it. When I was growing up I did listen to saxophone players, but when I was learning how to play I was trying to sound like Jimmy Page, I was trying to sound like B.B. King. I was drawn to rock ‘n’ roll and blues guitar, and so that’s how I play. I wish that I could play more like Hank Mobley; we all do. I wish I was Dexter Gordon, but I’m not and that’s fine.
LJN: It sounds like there’s a vocal quality to your playing as well.
CS: Thank you. Well yeah, I definitely also play somewhat like I sing, you know. There are similarities and I think most people who play an instrument and sing do have that quality: B.B. King definitely played guitar like he sang, and Chet Baker sang a lot like he played trumpet, Louis Armstrong… you know, there are similarities. You can’t help but have similar phrasing as singer when you’re a saxophone player.
LJN: While we’re on the topic of influences, let’s talk about your vocal influences...
CS: Well, early on, Elton John was my hero. I memorised the first eight or ten Elton John records. He really was a big influence on me. He, especially back then, back in the ’70s, sang like a blues or a soul singer – he was also a great pop singer. So many singers though… I would spend a month… or a year singing just like someone else. When I first met Mark Murphy, he was wonderful… the first time he heard me sing, he walked up on stage afterwards and said: “First of all, it was great; secondly, throw away all my records!” He was basically telling me “you sound too much like me”. He was flattered, but at the same time “don’t do that anymore; you’ve got that, go on to the next person”. Which is what I did: I started trying to sing like Joe Williams and then I was singing like Sarah Vaughan and then I was singing like Ray Charles and then I was trying to sing like Otis Redding. It’s good to not sound like someone else, but really I sound like everyone else, they’re just all mixed together. I love really quiet singers too. I mean, Blossom Dearie… I love her phrasing; I love the way she told a story. And certainly Tony Bennett and absolutely Frank Sinatra.
LJN: You recorded an album of his songs…
CS: I mean, you can’t help but be influenced by the best vocal storyteller ever. I just love Sinatra, especially the Capitol and early Reprise years when he was at the top of his game in the ’50s and early ’60s.
LJN: You’ve had a long musical partnership with Larry Goldings. He’s played on most of your albums and co-produced a few; you’ve written songs together… what’s he like to work with?
CS: Larry Goldings is an absolute genius. There is more up in that head of his than most rooms full of musicians would have. He’s just… he’s really fun to make music with. I met him back in the early ’90s when he was playing with Maceo Parker, and we started getting together and writing songs and playing a bit. One of the things I love is just doing duets with him: We did, I think, a really beautiful version of “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin, which was the saddest version ever. Really it is a sad song, he’s talking about how he’s had his heart broken many times and now it’s okay, but I looked at it as let’s do this as if he’s kind of kidding himself. And so, Larry started to play and it was just amazing and we did a take, it was recorded and I said “let’s do another one”, and he played an entirely different version of it with a totally different intro – I’ve never heard Larry play the same intro twice. Another thing I love about Larry is that he’s not a jazz snob. He and I are about the same age and we grew up listening to modern pop music and learned a lot from that. He can play anything; he’s not just a jazz guy, he can play great pop, rock ‘n’ roll – he’s James Taylor’s keyboard player!
LJN: What does this album mean to you and why do you think your fans will enjoy it?
CS: This album is, surprisingly to me, a really good snapshot of who I am as a musician. I have spent most of my career trying to find a way to put all of the types of music I love into one thing, and I think I’ve finally found it. Whether it’s jazz or pop or soul or country, it’s here on this record.
Larry Goldings guests on organ at various points throughout This Life (Pandemic Poodle Records), alongside John “Scrapper” Sneider on trumpet, Matthew Fries on keyboards, Cliff Schmitt on bass, and both Keith Hall and Paul Wells on drums, who regularly tour with Stigers. He is set for a tour of the UK that will kick off with a five-night residency at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club starting Thursday 24 Feb and will see him travel all across Britain over the course of February, March, April and June (linked below).