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But Beautiful by Boz Scaggs

The cover of Boz Scaggs' latest release, But Beautiful, has a moody black and white photograph of Boz gazing across the black void at a silver toned microphone, his profile illuminated against the darkened backdrop in a soft grey light, his index finger curled pensively at his lips, Boz appears to be staring intently into the dark void as if reflecting on how he got to this point. The music behind this cover finds Scaggs singing jazz standards, backed by a polished and sometimes iridescent quartet (Paul Nagel; piano, Eric Crystal; saxophone, Jason Lewis; drums and John Shifflett; bass). Laid over the restrained melodies, Boz's voice caresses the listener in its soothing verse, delivered in such a professional yet passionate manner that it seems this is what he's always done. To a limited extent, it is.

A lot of people think that jazz is something new for Boz. But Beautiful is in fact a result of a meeting of these same musicians at a Bread & Roses benefit three years ago. But it goes back much further than that. When Boz would sing acappella on the street corners of Stockholm, Sweden in 1965, he would include jazz standards. Go back and listen to Finding Her (1969) and you'll hear his appreciation for the genre. Downright Woman (1971), with its subdued essence and jazzy melody, could be put on But Beautiful. Here To Stay's (1971) vibraphone tones, flutes and congas is filled with jazz influences. Sail On White Moon (1974) could have been sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, or Take it For Granted sung by Billie Holiday. What he's doing now is not that distant from Harbor Lights or We're All Alone (1976). Night of Van Gogh (1988) has the same light, bright piano, solid bass lines and expressive vocals that speak to us on But Beautiful. Fact is, this recording has been 40 years in the making.

From the opening cymbal taps on "What's New", with its beatnik-cool bass lines and clear, lightly placed piano chords, we are taken to a land so groovy that you can almost hear the fingers snap with the laid back beat in the dimly lit club. We have embarked on a lustrous journey into a sound made timeless by Boz's voice and backing musicians. Having been fortunate enough to see him perform this song at February's Bread and Roses benefit at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, I realized then that this endeavor was going to work to perfection, and the recording bears that truth out.

Once released from Boz's mesmerizing treatment of the lyrics of "Never Let Me Go", we are introduced to tenor saxophonist Eric Crystal. His rich sound contains shades of John Coltrane and nestles comfortably in the mood initiated by the arrangement. Wow. And just as you think it can't get mellower, we are greeted by the subtle tones of "How Long Has This Been Going On", with wire brushes washing the snare heads like water breaking over smooth creek rock, the sax moaning like the warm summer breeze, and the gentle piano chords playing like sunlight on the leaves of the trees. Then Boz fills the intro with his distinctive delivery of the verse. You can't help but think, "My God, what a beautiful song" as you melt further into the calming effect of the music.

By the time we get to the title track's rhythmic rim pops and underlying piano phrasing, I mean, we are into being relaxed. Crystal's sax has taken on more of a be-bop style reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. I can understand why he is considered as a fine talent in the scene. Before I've recovered from the effects of "But Beautiful", "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" comes up, a beloved classic as fresh as the spring's source, and I heartily drink in its clear refreshment.

Song after song, we continue to be massaged and seduced by this music. It's not so much that But Beautiful is a radical departure for Boz as much as it's like letting us into his house to show us around. It's dark out, the lights are down, the fireplace flickers across the worn wood floor, and the velvet touch of Boz's voice makes us warm and welcome in his world. With But Beautiful as our soundtrack, we can enjoy falling in love all over again, basking in the beauty of the night, exploring the mysterious foundations of desire, propelled by the languishing melodies, the soft seduction of this sound, finding romance in the empty spaces previously unobserved. Uninterrupted by more up-tempo tunes, this seemingly endless journey in the slow-paced world becomes a welcome respite from reality's demands.

But Beautiful is an exemplary triumph for Boz. This is no blind worship, this is admiration for a true talent, a master with few peers. So, if there is to be a Volume 2, we can hope that Boz continues his formal foray into jazz by composing and performing his own songbook, sprinkled with some more standards. To the appreciative ear, he's proven he can pick them and has excelled in performing them perfectly.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Boz Scaggs
  • CD Title: But Beautiful
  • Genre: Jazz Vocals
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Gray Cat
  • Tracks: 1. Whats New 2. Never Let Me Go 3. How Long Has This Been Going On? 4. Sophisticated Lady 5. But Beautiful 6. Bewitched
  • Musicians: BOZ SCAGGS - (vocals), PAUL NAGEL (pianist and arranger), JASON LEWIS (drums), JOHN SHIFFLETT (bass), ERIC CRYSTAL (saxophonist).
  • Rating: Four Stars
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