One Cool Cat
POSTED: January 16, 2003

Rex Reed, New York Observer

“On a lighter note, the famous Oak Room at the Algonquin, usually reserved for literary homages and Cole Porter songs, is playing host to a fresh new face in the contemporary jazz firmament named Curtis Stigers.

Mr. Stigers, who hails from Boise, Idaho, is the musical equivalent of Mr. Deeds on his way to town or Mr. Smith on his way to Washington—a lanky, swinging Jimmy Stewart type headed for stardom. Accompanied by a trio of clean-cut, all-American jazzbos—Matthew Fries on piano, Keith Hall on drums and Gregory Ryan on bass—the saxophone-playing singer looks ready to heat up another Saturday-night dance at Dartmouth. But the music these guys play is a joyful, sophisticated mix of jazz, rock and blues that reaches farther in its roots than any easy-to-peg genre and stretches more horizons than any frat house.

On a standard like “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” Mr. Stigers finds eight new notes to every bar, and scats gently with a keen sense of time before launching into an even hipper rendition of the Jon Hendricks–Harry (Sweets) Edison classic, “Centerpiece.” Honoring Nashville steel guitarist Steve Earle, he swings into a funky “Home Town Blues,” giving it a Tin Pan Alley spin in a style he calls “Irving Berlin meets Hank Williams.” “Swingin’ Down at Tenth and Main” is a country-and-western tribute to one of his early idols, the driving pianist Gene Harris. He can also handle an indigo-tinged ballad like “My Foolish Heart” with a heartbreaking, understated vibrato, and turn Randy Newman’s “Living Without You” into a surprising anthem for a wounded post-9/11 New York. Although he looks like he was born with a straw in his mouth, he brings a unique and definitive sensibility to everything he sings that often melds two or three styles together simultaneously.

Although his movie-star good looks and sweet crooning style may be the stuff bobby-soxers drool over, his horn playing is less impressive. There’s some alarming evidence that he’s been unwisely influenced more by the nasty honking of Acker Bilk and Kenny G. than by the gorgeous obligatos of Stan Getz and Scott Hamilton. His sax is perfunctory, not warm or misty. Still, there’s a lot to admire in a cool cat so lacking in pretense that he can interrupt a particularly passionate drum solo to exclaim, “Good gracious!” Because he’s handsome and hip in the spotlight, staring dreamily into space while clutching his horn and projecting the image of a lonely little boy lost, romantic comparisons to the young Chet Baker are tempting, but flawed.

It’s doubtful that Curtis Stigers has ever ingested anything stronger than rhubarb pie.”