Call it prescience. Or perfect timing. But when Concord Records released Curtis Stigers’s first CD on the label, Baby Plays Around,
heads turned and ears opened to a familiar voice in a different context: jazz. The sometimes truculent jazz purists had to admit that Stigers had made a transition, one of his own volition, from pop singing to jazz singing, and quite successfully at that. He can scat. He can shape a ballad. He can invest meaning into the lyrics of standards. He has a distinctive voice. He can sing jazz.
I, personally, have found that I keep playing "Marie" from Baby Plays Around
over and over again after Stigers’s CD introduced me to Randy Newman’s song. Stigers followed the same approach on his second CD, Secret Heart,
but with West Coast musicians like Anthony Wilson and Jeff Hamilton, instead of the earlier one’s use of New Yorkers like Randy Brecker and Adam Nussbaum. The key to all three of Stigers’s Concord CD’s, though, has been pianist/organist Larry Goldings, who now has earned the exalted status of co-producer of You Inspire Me,
the third in the series.
And this time, Stigers has changed his approach. Rather than putting his own interpretation on standards, Stigers has braved the potential for criticism by including--gasp!--a country song by Merle Haggard or two of the Beatles’s less frequently sung tunes. It turns out that Goldings is the person who suggested Merle Haggard to Stigers. Not only that, but fellow jazz musicians Ben Allison and Matt Wilson share the same sense of joy in playing music borrowed from genres outside the sometimes rigid confines of jazz. Rather than playing the guitar lick of the Beatles’s "I Feel Fine," Allison--who himself has presented some adventurous music of his own as part of the Jazz Composers Collective--plays the famous lick with lightness, clarity and verve.
In a truly collaborative spirit associated with jazz, Stigers has encouraged all of the first-rate musicians to make their own suggestions for songs, arrangements or licks. So, You Inspire Me
has an entirely different feel from Stigers’s first two Concord project, although mainstays like Newman and irresistible standards remain. Such collaboration has led to the "Poinciana" feel of Nick Lowe’s "You Inspire Me," which Stigers fashions as an exquisitely shaped ballad. Or they create an eerily inviting minor-keyed arrangement of "I Fall In Love Too Easily," consisting of Goldings’s luxuriant work on B-3 organ and Stigers’s attention to phrasing and lyrics reminiscent of Mark Murphy’s. In contrast, Stigers sings "Blue Skies" as a duo with Goldings on piano, allowing Stigers to stretch out and become personally expressive with the freedom to lead accompaniment.
It’s fortunate for the jazz scene that Stigers has followed his own path, one inspired by his work in Boise, Idaho as a teenager with the legendary Gene Harris. Despite the millions of pop records that he has sold to platinum status, Stigers has surmounted the barriers to such crossover. And now he has helped alleviate the relative paucity of male jazz singers as he has brought some well-deserved pop, folk and country music into the vocabulary of jazz, which is in need of songs to supplement the accepted standards.