Problem was, his dreams weren't the kind the Arista Records bean counters were inclined to support, so he set about the task of tearing down the career they'd laid out for him and re-establishing himself as a jazz singer. With the release of his third album for Concord Records, "You Inspire Me," that transition seems to be pretty complete. While he may not play the big stages or sell the big numbers that were available to him in the pop world, he's making one great record after another. Although his transition from pop star to jazz performer may be complete, though, his growth continues with the new release, displaying an artist who has enough command of the tradition he works in to take wide ranging liberties with that tradition. "You Inspire Me" is Stigers’ riskiest album, and arguably his best.
We talked about his career, recording and jazz in general, by telephone.
JazzReview: You think of jazz musicians as people committed to living out their lives in smoky back door joints in big dark cities, living a life of casual dissipation. Just when the jazz part of your career is taking off, you move back to Boise to enjoy the outdoor life and your family. It doesn't seem to fit, Curtis.
Curtis Stigers: I'm fully into casual dissipation, but I grew up skiing and mountain biking. I know you're being facetious mostly, but there is that perception of jazz musicians being sort of self-destructive and living in clubs. I certainly love to play in clubs, and I love to play in theatres. I like to go either way, and I like festivals.
Jazz has become a different sort of thing than it was in the 40s. Obviously, you still do have to play clubs and there are a lot of young musicians banging their heads against the wall in New York City, playing at small clubs and breathing cigarette smoke. But as a singer, it's a little more difficult. You have to be more careful where you play because not only do you dissipate, but your voice dissipates as well.
JazzReview: Well, I know you played Jazz Alley in Seattle recently, and they've gone no smoking. By the stereotype, a no smoking jazz club almost seems like a contradiction in terms.
Curtis Stigers: I know, it's funny. Well, for me it works. Being a singer, cigarette smoke and singers don't get along. I really appreciate it when a club is committed to no smoking; it's a nice thing. Drinking is another thing!
JazzReview: Well, it can put a few years on the other end of a singer's career, and that is a good thing.
Curtis Stigers: I'm not one of these singers that sit around and drink chamomile tea and don’t talk all day. Compared to some singers, I'm pretty lax about taking care of me. I like to drink a beer before I sing a set. At the same time, cigarettes can really take their toll.
JazzReview: Well, I want to talk about the new album, but first, there seems to have been three Curtis Stigers. There was the kid growing up in Boise, Idaho, and the international pop sensation, and now the jazz singer. I grew up in the northwest too and to me, a sax-playing singer from Idaho mean's Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere & The Raiders.
Curtis Stigers: Did Mark play saxophone, too?
JazzReview: Sure, he played pretty good saxophone for the kind of garage R&B they were playing.
Curtis Stigers: I never knew Lindsay played sax. I actually know Paul. His granddaughter is my Goddaughter. But yeah, in this day and age, all boundaries have fallen. You don't have to be from New Orleans anymore to be a jazz musician. You don't have to play on 52nd Street to cut your teeth. It certainly helps to go someplace where you can get noticed and you can learn. I had to leave Idaho at a certain point to grow. I realized when I was 21 that I'd sort of reached a ceiling in Boise in terms of what I could do and how far I could grow. I knew I had to get out. I discovered New York City for myself, and fell in love with it. It was just the opposite of Boise. There were no trees and it was all stone and asphalt, and smells and stinks, and it was beautiful! I absolutely fell in love with it.
So you've gotta get out of there, but coming up there was a lot of stimulation. There was great music in the schools. So I learned my chops, I studied classical music, and I studied a bit of jazz. I was in the jazz band and we had choirs and things like that. I sort of got a base of what I am as a musician from there, and also there were a few key people in town . . .a few good saxophone teachers, and a great influence in Gene Harris.
Gene had retired to Boise in the late 70s to get out of the rat race. He'd become disillusioned with the jazz scene at that point. The last couple of things he did with Blue Note were kind of pop/soul instead of jazz. I think there were some personal things too, but that's sort of the official line. So he moved to Boise, and there were about 10 years when he was out of the scene, out of touring. During that period he was playing. Five nights a week you could go hear Gene Harris play, hear one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world just playing at this little lobby bar in downtown Boise. Tuesday night was jam night and I went down practically every Tuesday for a few years. That's a hell of a school.
There are plenty of places to learn about music. You don't necessarily have to go to New Orleans or Chicago or New York. Those centers of learning have dissipated to a degree. They certainly are great learning places, but you can learn about jazz in New Jersey because there are jazz musicians there. You can go to jazz college in Miami. But, yeah, sooner or later you gotta go and see the real thing and be exposed to it. Luckily, I was exposed to at least one legend at a very early point in my life, a very impressionable point in my life.
JazzReview: And you mentioned schools. Here in Seattle that's very important. We have several schools with pretty well-developed jazz programs, and a lot of the kids go back for the Gene Harris Jazz Camp at Boise State University.
Curtis Stigers: Right. There's so much you can learn as a young person. There's a certain point where that stuff becomes corny, where it isn't enough. You need something with more edge. But for a 13, 14-year-old kid to go to something like that and be exposed to some of the names, it's a very important thing. It's very inspiring.
JazzReview: I saw a kid busking at a festival here, probably 16, playing Charlie Parker solos, transcriptions, note-for-note. At some point you have to break away and do your own thing, but if you can play Bird at 16, that's a pretty good start.
Curtis Stigers: That's true. That's how we all learn to play jazz or any kind of music, really, by copying other people’s stuff. There's nothing better you can do as a jazz musician than trying to sound just like your heroes, if you spend enough time at it and pick enough heroes. It's important not to do just Charlie Parker. It's important that he does some Paul Desmond solos, some Ornette Coleman solos, some Pat Metheny solos and some Errol Garner solos. It's important to really spread it out, and a bunch of different instruments as well. But that's a great way to learn. That's how I learned to play jazz, beside from Gene and the schools. I listened to records. I listened to my heroes. I listened to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole, Mark Murphy, Jon Hendricks, Sarah and Ella, and Bobby McFerrin and Al Jarreau. I sang like all of them for months at a time.
I met Mark Murphy at a little club in Seattle. I was college age, but by that time, I'd dropped out and was just playing around. I was teaching at a jazz camp in the area and all the professors from the camp, and my buddies, went down to hear Mark Murphy sing. I'd been studying him, just devouring his records for the last nine months or a year. At the end of the night, for some reason, we got up and played. And after I sang a few songs, Mark came up and said in his very dramatic voice, "First of all, Curtis, you sound great. Secondly, throw away all the records!" Because I sounded just like him, he was right. I had to stop listening to him for a couple years. Eventually, if you've got enough of a point of view of your own, you develop your own sound, and I did.
JazzReview: So you left Boise, went to New York to pursue jazz, and ended up becoming an international pop sensation.
Curtis Stigers: Well, I went to New York to pursue music. I was never a jazz snob. I grew up studying jazz, but I also grew up loving Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. . .and Steely Dan, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams. By no means am I just a jazz snob. It's so limiting to only listen to one kind of music. It never occurred to me that I should only play one kind of music. I was so interested in what all these different people could do. I wanted to learn to do it. In Boise, I was playing jazz, but I was also playing drums in rock bands and saxophone in R&B jump bands. I love music, and I still sit on my front porch and play my acoustic guitar and sing Steve Earle songs. It's just who I am.
When I went to New York, I broke in as a blues saxophone player. The clubs that seemed to have the most jam sessions were blues clubs. There were some jazz sessions, but frankly, I'm a singer in the jazz world. I play saxophone, but I've never developed the chops to really go in and play the cutting sessions. If I went into Small's, or at that point it was Augie's, the club where everybody was hanging at, I probably would have been knocked down. If I had had a microphone and could have sung, scat sung, I could have kept up with them. But singers aren't necessarily that welcome at jam sessions. Singers are kind of a redheaded stepchild in the jazz world, kind of on the periphery. We sort of have to do it on our own. When I play in New York, I play at the Algonquin. I don't play at the Blue Note or the Vanguard, 'cause you don't really see a lot of singers at the Vanguard. Occasionally you'll see singers, but they tend to be really super famous. Singers kind of have to make their own road. So as a jazz singer, I just kept doing my own thing and picking up little gigs here and there. But the way I broke in first was going to blues jam sessions and playing horn, and I can play the blues. I grew up sort of emulating people like David 'Fathead' Newman and Ben Webster, a little more rock and roll though. So I started doing that, and then broke in as a singer in that world, started writing songs, and they were pop songs.
When I got signed, even though I was playing with a jazz trio, we were doing everything, playing Charlie Parker tunes and Ellington and Donald Fagen and Al Green and my own songs, which tended toward the soul/pop side. So a lot of pop labels came out, and though they were charmed by the fact that there was a 21-year-old singing jazz, they wanted to make money. I figured out the hard way that that's what record companies want to do. I thought, "OK, I'll make a pop record. That's great. I'm writing a bunch of pop songs, I like pop music. I'll do that and I'll make jazz records too. I'll be an artist. I'll get to do everything." What I realized after making my first record is that they didn't care about me as an artist; they just wanted me to do the same thing again and make a bunch of money. That was it. They said as we were shaking hands, "Yes, we love you as an artist." What they were really saying was "You're dollar signs to us." So once that first record came out and it was a success, I realized I had painted myself into a corner, and really, the record business painted me in a corner. You've got to be one thing. They don't like you to be yourself. They want you to keep that one thing, that very first thing that you did. So I spent six or seven years basically dismantling my career, almost destroying what had become of that pop sensation thing, just so that I could be a jazz singer, a folk singer, be whatever I wanted to be at the time.
I realized during that time that jazz is where I belonged; it's what I'm best at. I'm a pretty good pop singer. I do that pretty well. I'm a really great jazz singer. I do that best. I'm not going to apologize for this. I think I'm one of the best jazz singers in the world. I've worked on this my whole life. I can stand up with anybody in the world. There are a few people I defer to, automatically. Jon Hendricks, Mark Murphy, Tony Bennett, there are a few more. But I can do this better than anything else in my career. I found that out after bouncing off these different things, and learning great things in those different worlds. Singing pop music has made me a much better jazz singer. I've found ways to sing the song and find the center of the tune being a pop singer, while a lot of jazz singers are in love with the sound of their voice, and I love the songs. Certainly I'll step out and take a solo and blow with the guys, but when you've got a good song, what else do you need.
JazzReview: Well, ultimately the proof is in the product, and you've done three straight jazz albums and the new one is the best work you've ever done, in my opinion, and I've reviewed and raved about both the others. One of the things I noted about Secret Heart is that the jazz singers who usually get the attention are the women.
Curtis Stigers: No kidding! (laughs)
JazzReview: That's not just now. While there have always been great male singers, it's the Vaughn's and Fitzgerald’s who get remembered and overshadow everybody. Just compare Jon Hendricks' career to Ella Fitzgerald's. He's done amazing work, and people who know about it love it, but he's not a household name like Ella.
Curtis Stigers: Right. You're depressing the hell out of me. (laughs) You're right, though. I've thought this through a million times and it is so true. Joe Williams, although he's known, is not known like Sarah. He's not known like Ella or Billie. You're right, the same with Jon, certainly the same with Mark. Mel Torme, better known, but really because he's a pop singer doing jazz. Guys that are remembered were pop singers who sang jazz, Nat and Frank and Tony. Obviously, Frank had so much influence on jazz singers, and jazz in general, phrasing and all that, but the reason they're famous is because they're pop singers. It's a tough road to hoe, but you gotta do what you gotta do. I look at Mark Murphy, or Kurt Elling, someone who's so dedicated to what he does, and it's very artful. It's not a mass audience appeal product. He does what he's doing without worrying about who he's selling to at all, and that's impressive to me. That's an inspiration to me that people like that are willing to do it because that's what they do. It's just what we do. We can't help it if we're not girls. We can't fit into those little black dresses.
JazzReview: Sure. Still from a commercial standpoint, the decision to pursue jazz is a decision to forgo...
Curtis Stigers: It's suicidal. (laughs)
JazzReview: You're probably not going to have another platinum album in your career. I don't like that, and I'm sure you're not crazy about it either, but it's probably true.
Curtis Stigers: At the same time, that kind of success creates a whole new bag of troubles. That kind of success makes you think, "What should I be recording next? How do I follow that up?" If you sell a million records, the record company's going to want you to do it again. It can't be easy being Diana Krall right now.
JazzReview: So the question is no longer "Can I make a better record?" but "Can I sell more albums?"
Curtis Stigers: Yep. And it was such a freeing thing for me to step away from that pop world and say, "OK, I'm going to make a great record now and next year I'm going to make a better record, and the year after that I'm going to make a better record." It's not going to matter if it sells a zillion records. It's going to matter if it's good, that it's better than the last one, that I'm improving, growing, and it's really freeing. You're right. I'm probably not going to have another platinum record. I'm not going to have huge advances for records again. And it feels great. It's fine. I'm able to make a living in the jazz world, touring. Even Tony Bennett, I'm sure he doesn't make huge royalties off of his records. He goes out there and makes money doing what he does, being a singer and not being a shill, somebody showing off their new haircut. That was the drag of being a pop singer. I really enjoyed that first record. I wrote it, I performed it, and I picked the producers. It was my thing. It didn't sound like what I'm doing now, but it's my nature to be diverse, to chase a lot of different things. But it was that other thing; it was the bullstuff, the non-musical stuff. The touring was fantastic, the musicians I met and got to play with, but when it came down to it, it was the suits wanting more money. And that's not where I thought it was. Like millions of schmucks before me, I learned it the hard way.
JazzReview: Well, looking at your pace, I get the sense that you're loving what you're doing now in a way you didn't love that, given that there have been three albums in past three years, as opposed to three albums in the first ten.
Curtis Stigers: What happened in that first ten years, after I made the first record, that's when the trouble began. I just decided I did that, now I'm going to do this. I didn't try to make a jazz album on the second record. I just tried to turn left a little bit and make more of a singer/songwriter record, just keep growing. And the record company president, Clive Davis, just fought me all the way. So it took four years to get that second record out, just because he kept turning down what I turned in. That's when I knew this wasn't for me, because I did not want to spend the rest of my career with someone breathing down my neck with "No, no, you shouldn't do that, you should do this." I don't need somebody to tell me what kind of music to play. I know that. I know what music to play, what music to write.
JazzReview: That's what you do.
Curtis Stigers: That's who I am. The record company people should be selling the record, but for some reason he believed that he made the records as well as sold them. I just got in a bad situation there. It took me the second half of the decade of the nineties to get out of that situation, to dismantle my career, by making crazy choices like playing good music. Eventually, I got what I wanted.
JazzReview: Interestingly, you ended up with what became Gene Harris' recording home at Concord.
Curtis Stigers: Yeah. I met John Burke, Vice President over at Concord, at a session of Gene's. I sang a couple songs on two of Gene's Concord records . . .a gospel record called "In His Hands" and then my favorite of the two, an album called "Down Home Blues," with Gene and brother Jack McDuff. So I connected with Concord then, and didn't sign for a few years after that, but I stayed in touch and knew that when it was time to make a jazz record that they were there and waiting.
JazzReview: Well, let's talk about "You Inspire Me." It's another left turn, in a way. With a couple exceptions, the first couple Concord albums were pretty much devoted to standards, but you made some very interesting song choices for this album.
Curtis Stigers: Yeah. On the first two Concord releases, I recorded a couple of modern tunes with the standards. On the first one there was "Baby Plays Around," an Elvis Costello tune, and the Randy Newman tune, "Marie." On the second one, there's another Randy Newman and the Steve Earle and Ron Sexsmith. I was just dabbling in finding modern tunes to cut with a jazz group. This time around I just decided to challenge myself. Somebody had written about "Secret Heart" and said he wondered what it would be like if I made a whole album like that, and I said "Yeah!" So I spent the better part of a year while I was touring just looking for those tunes. I'm a fan of rock and roll, country music, pop music, soul music, so I thought it was an opportunity to fuse those with what I love.
I had a list of a hundred songs; there are a lot of great writers out there and such a treasure trove of music to choose from the last thirty years. That's what I was shooting for, sort of Beatles on, or Elvis on. I set out to do the whole record that way. I copped out at the last minute, because I had "Blue Skies" on my mind for some reason. I'd been singing that in my head for a couple weeks. Larry [Goldings, Stigers' keyboardist and co-arranger/producer] and I were just hanging out in the studio and I said, "You know ‘Blue Skies,’ right? Just play that." The tape was rolling and bam, there it is. The other one, "I Fall In Love Too Easily," was one of those things where we were in the studio just playing a groove and I sang that head over it and it was on tape. But the rest of them, I was listening to a lot of oldies radio stations, which are sort of underrated. You tend to zoom past them on the dial, but you can hear so much great music if you have the guts to sit through the crap, the silly old songs.
Most of these things were kind of shots in the dark, you know, can it be done? I bounce everything off of Larry Goldings. He and I have co-arranged my last two records and on this record he became so involved in the project, that he became a co-producer as well. But it was a riot to see things just grow out of nothing. There's a pop tune way over there and there's this whacked-out jazz trio way over here.
The players have a lot to do with the way it worked out, too. To have Dave Tronzo [guitar] in there... Besides the songs on the record, the players really took me to a new place. I've been a pretty conservative jazz singer so far, even though I've picked a few modern tunes and a few unusual covers. I've been trying to establish that I am a jazz singer. Coming from the pop world, I felt I had to really establish that I'm not just playing here, I'm not playing fusion, I'm not trying to cross over, to make pop-jazz records to get on the radio. I'm making jazz records. I'm a jazz singer. This time around, I felt I had proven that and that it was time to stretch out.
Larry was always there. He was the first element I threw in, but Matt [Wilson], he's just such a humorous, whacked-out jazz drummer. He can play straight ahead jazz, I've heard him in those situations, but his records are so out in left field and so full of humor and sort of that drunken feel of his. I heard him at the Detroit Jazz Festival last Labor Day, with Dr. Lonnie Smith. And I heard him doing stuff with this organ trio, playing straight ahead, but at the same time playing Matt Wilson stuff. And I thought, "Wait a minute! This might be the way to do this." To take these modern tunes and let them be modern, to have this young, modern sensibility, like Matt, like me, like Larry, because we're young. We like other things beside jazz. Let them have that, but let them be honorable to the jazz sound, too. So that was the first big step toward finding a sound for the record.
JazzReview: Well, I think sometimes we forget that none of those Great American Songbook standards that every jazz singer sings were written as jazz songs. Irving Berlin was not a jazz writer.
Curtis Stigers: No, he never met a major 7th chord he liked.
JazzReview: Some of the material, Randy Newman, Billy Joel, Joe Jackson, is a little more obvious. The way they structure the songs is more in the tradition. But you picked some songs that I would never have imagined. For instance, I think John Sebastian is one of the best, most unheralded songwriters of the last forty years....
Curtis Stigers: I do too. I've known that song ("Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?") since I was a kid, and always dug it, but never thought in a million years that I had to cut it as a jazz tune. He writes great, big, fat pop songs. And they were huge! I never realized until I started thinking about recording that tune how amazingly successful and famous they were. They were the biggest American band during the Beatles heyday. I studied up on them and went through so many of their tunes, just learning. I'm a liner note reader; I'm a history nerd. So I dug in and not only is it an amazing song, but I decided yep, I'm gonna do that song. And the next weekend John Sebastian is playing harmonica on Prairie Home Companion and the next weekend there's a long thing on Terry Gross or one of the NPR things about the Lovin' Spoonful. Then just about the week before I went in to make the record, the guitar player from the Lovin' Spoonful died. It just seemed to me, beside the fact that it was a great song, that there was somebody telling me "You've got to cut this song." The version of it is just so drunk. I just kept saying to Matt Wilson "Drunker than that. Drunker!" Sort of New Orleans meets the Knitting Factory.
JazzReview: You mentioned Dave Tronzo. He's got that little Delta lick he does just at the top of that track that totally sets it up. The first time I heard it I was just "Whoa! I can't believe he did this!"
Curtis Stigers: I'm hoping that people will respond that way, because that's the way I would respond to a record like this. I make these records for myself, but I'm thinking that there's got to be some listeners out there that are like me, and I'd be "Wait a minute. He did that? That song?" I like that surprise element of this record. There's something strange and unusual about the choices and the directions we went with each of the songs. I'm glad you responded that way. I hope there are ten more of you out there.
JazzReview: Well, I suspect a fair piece of the jazz audience these days are people like me who are of an age to have bought that record new. You're kind of tampering with the icon songs of our generation, which is a risky thing to do. The obvious move these days is to go for the smooth jazz radio market, to take that song and 'jazz it up' in a way that doesn't make it jazz. But you made a jazz song out of it!
Curtis Stigers: Yeah. I think 'jazzy' is the worst thing you can be. When I was looking for songs, I'd say I was going to make a record of modern tunes and friends would give me suggestions. A lot of them were good, but a lot of them were sort of 'jazzy' tunes, things that were already trying to be jazz. I find the things that really work for this kind of thing are tunes that aren't jazz at all. They're pop tunes, they're country tunes; they have a strong point of view already without the jazz thing. They're not trying to be something else. I'm just doing pop tunes, just like Miles did, just like Ella did. I'm not reinventing the wheel here. I'm just doing it fifty years later, or forty years later. I made them real jazz tunes by using real jazz musicians who weren't afraid to do these songs. If I had a different cast of characters, five guys that were jazz snobs, it would have never worked.