Maybe it was because he didn’t usually sing jazz songs. Maybe it was because he was considered to be too successful to be a jazz singer. Maybe it was because the labels suppressed his jazz sensibilities so that they could make albums with projected sales before the recording even started. Maybe it was because the jazz press just didn’t listen or believe that he fit the image.
Well, he does.
Baby Plays Around assembled a superlative group of musicians to accompany Stigers. However, his voice, with not quite the Irish tenor qualities of Mark Murphy but certainly within the same range, not only fit the exigencies of the music, but also swung. While that album included some obvious references to Murphy’s earlier work, including his famous versions of "I Keep Going Back To Joe’s" and "Parker’s Mood," Stigers’ most recent CD, Secret Heart, finally allows Curtis Stigers to be Curtis Stigers. With nothing to prove. With a selection of songs that have personal meaning.
With a slimmed-down back-up group that features the voice, even as the tracks are enhanced by illuminating instrumental solos.
Critics took note of Stigers’ ability to scat on Baby Plays Around, but the softer, slower pieces seemed to me to be more effective and affecting. For instance, Randy Newman’s "Marie," very seldom recorded, became a highlight of the album. Newman has finally won an Oscar, but Stigers was an early supporter of Newman’s music. Thus, Secret Heart includes Newman’s "It’s So Hard Living Without You." Once again, the words not only describe a situation, but they depict tiny details surrounding the circumstances of an event or emotion: "Milk truck hauls the sun up; paper hits the door; subway shakes my floor; and I think about you. Everyone got something; they’re all trying to get some more; they all got something to get up for; but I ain’t about to." Accordingly, the other songs on Secret Heart--some chestnuts, like "Body and Soul," and some not, like "Hometown Blues"--depend upon lyrical depiction as well.
None more so than "Sweet Kentucky Ham" by Dave Frishberg, yet another supreme songwriter deserving of more recognition. "It’s six p.m.; suppertime in South Bend, Indiana; and you figure ‘What the hell’; you can eat in your motel; so you order up room service on the phone; and you watch the local news and eat alone; you got to take what little pleasures you can find; you got sweet Kentucky ham on your mind." Come to think of it, Stigers’ range is similar to that of Frishberg’s too. Having seen him perform live at the JVC Jazz Festival, Stigers lately has taken up the cause of Frishberg, as had many other singers, like Susannah McCorkle, in the past.
But Stigers’ most heartfelt tribute is "Swingin’ Down At 10th & Main," which is the exact location of the Idanha Hotel in Boise, Idaho, where Stigers used to sit in on sax with Gene Harris and where Harris patiently mentored him. Stigers takes up the sax again, as he did during those Boise jam sessions. A muted Gilbert Castellanos comes in, recalling the work of Clark Terry, John Clayton with his puckish bowing is reminiscent of Major Holley, and Anthony Wilson’s clearly conceived and swinging solo contains the appeal of a Kenny Burrell.
Stigers has switched from an East Coast to a West Coast group this time around, pianist Larry Goldings being the constant instrumentalist from Baby Plays Around. And once again, Goldings impresses with his sensitivity, flow and inventive solos, even though many listeners think of him primarily as an organist. With Jeff Hamilton powering the group, some of the arrangements feature potentially tongue-twisting explication of rapidly expressed lyrics that could have frustrated articulation-challenged singers.
On the whole, Secret Heart is a satisfying experience, obviously for Stigers and the musicians, but also for the listeners, as the singing is accepted for its sheer enjoyment value. Finally, Stigers has reconciled his own artistic conflict of being forced to record pop, in spite of its substantial financial reward, while preferring to record his jazz singing as well.