All Dues Paid in Full
Clive Davis, The London Sunday Times
Can a pop heart-throb make the grade in the unforgiving world of jazz? Well, Curtis Stigers has, with his remarkable recent album. Clive Davis urges you to listen without prejudice.
These are not the best of times for jazz snobs. How are they supposed to cope with the spectacle of Jamie Cullum being nominated for the Brits, or Diana Krall filling the Royal Albert Hall? For cult members, who want to preserve jazz as a beleaguered minority art form, accessible only to the anointed few, all this sudden popularity is a little bewildering. And now there is even worse news for them: Curtis Stigers is making a comeback.
The singer-saxophonist, whose boyish good looks and airbrushed songs once made him an MOR rival to Michael Bolton, has reinvented himself as a bona fide jazz artist. In the early 1990s, Stigers enjoyed astonishing success with the sort of songs people listen to in stadiums while waving cigarette lighters in the air. So there was a certain amount of bemusement when his new record, You Inspire Me, was chosen as this paper’s jazz album of 2003. It was no mirage, no sudden attack of acute 1990s nostalgia. You Inspire Me is a superb record, and Curtis Stigers is a marvellous jazz singer.
Suspicious as ever, the jazz world has not exactly rushed to embrace him. He is, however, slowly building a new following. On New Year’s Eve, he took another step forward when he appeared at one of New York’s premier jazz clubs, the Blue Note. True, he was only in the support slot: most of the crowd queuing on the pavement outside had come to hear the headliner, the pianist Herbie Hancock. Is this another case of a fading musician spotting a bandwagon and hauling himself aboard? Not at all. The truth is that Stigers is returning to his roots. A long time ago, he started out as jazz singer before fate turned him into a pop idol and then dumped him back to earth again. As a teenager in Boise, Idaho, he played all sorts of music, from R&B to punk, but his great passion was jazz and he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of Gene Harris, the extrovert, blues-tinged pianist who had made his name with the veteran band, the Three Sounds. The youngster eventually set his sights on New York, playing saxophone in blues clubs and paying his dues as a singer with a trio.
After he came to the attention of Arista – the label that gave the world Whitney Houston – he entered the realms of the fairy tale. His debut, self-titled album, released in 1991, became an enormous bestseller. Yet success came at what proved to be a crippling price. Arista, understandably enough, wanted him to continue in the same vein. Stigers, always restless, wanted to try something new. The result was that his next album, Time Was, did not appear for another four years. Stigers found himself locked into a battle of wills with the founder of Arista, Clive Davis – a man who is not used to losing arguments. “It got pretty rough,” Stigers recalls, sitting in a cafe just before his Blue Note soundcheck. “Every song I came in with, the response was: ‘This is all wrong, you’ve got to re-record it.’ It was agony. I’d had this success with my first album, choosing the songs and so on, so I thought he was going to trust me. We went toe-to-toe. I never called him any nasty names, but there were six or seven months where we didn’t meet, and we’ d just send these letters back and forth. He finally realised that I was as stubborn as him.”
The falling-out caused Stigers’s career to stall. For months on end, he sat at home, strumming a guitar and mulling over the impasse. Eventually he left Arista to join Columbia, but it was not until 1999 that he released another album, suitably entitled Brighter Days. By then, however, his initial momentum had fizzled out. He was close to being a has-been. Luckily, he managed to turn the situation to his own advantage. Free of corporate pressures, he was able to consider fulfilling his dream of making a jazz album. Finally, he agreed a deal with an independent company, Concord, home to the saxophonist Scott Hamilton.
Stigers’s first release, Baby Plays Around, duly arrived in 2001, cleverly mixing standards with unorthodox material, including Elvis Costello’s title tune and Randy Newman’s Marie. A club date at Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club followed soon afterwards. On what was, as I recall, a fairly quiet night, Stigers delivered a devastating set in front of a modest audience that was a mixture of jazzers, the merely curious and a smattering of diehard fans. The last of these tended to be women, sitting in pairs, staring up at him in silent rapture. It was the first time I had heard him. I was a convert from then on. Elsewhere, he faced rather more resistance. In jazz, singers have usually struggled to be taken seriously by instrumentalists. For a former pop star, the problems were even greater. Stigers grew used to having to fight his corner. “The singer is sort of the red-headed step-child of the jazz world,” he explains. “I can remember one night, years ago, just after I’d first come to New York, I was sitting in the Blue Note with Gene after he’d played a set. They have a late-night jam session there. Gene said: ‘Get up there and sing, Curtis!’ So I went up and gave my name and an alto player who will remain nameless – he was a contemporary of the Marsalis brothers – just looked at me, shook his head and walked off the stage. That’s when I learned. ‘Okay, this is what a singer deals with.’ There is no place for a singer to go. You just have to make your own road.”
Secret Heart, the follow-up to Baby Plays Around, was released two years ago. But You Inspire Me marked the real breakthrough, supplying varied arrangements of the kind of songs most jazz singers would never dream of touching. Joe Jackson’s Fools in Love and Merle Haggard’s Crazy Moon were two of the highlights, while Stigers signed off with a rapt treatment of the Irving Berlin staple, Blue Skies. If the first two albums had generally played safe, You Inspire Me went for broke. Helped by musicians as assured as pianist Larry Goldings, Stigers pulled all the diverse elements together. “It was liberating to get get into the room with musicians who weren’t just jazz heads,” Stigers says. “At one point, when I wanted to use slide guitar, I caught myself asking (drummer) Matt Wilson: ‘Is that still jazz?’ He said: ‘What is jazz anyway?’ Of course, he was right. Jazz is changing every second. One person says it’s this, another says it’s that and it’s totally different. Maybe they’re both right. Or maybe they’re both wrong. Maybe jazz is dead, or maybe it’s as alive as ever.”
After the turmoil of the past 10 years, he exudes a quiet contentment, wryly joking about how he has made the transition “from show business to the music business”. He may no longer have the rock-star trappings, but he never much cared for them anyway, and the important thing is that he is free to sing whatever he wants to sing. This is an artist who, when he played the cabaret room last year at that dowager of Manhattan hotels, the Algonquin, psyched himself up in his dressing room with BB King’s album Live at the Regal. As he ponders his next album, he is sifting through another batch of tunes from way beyond the mainstream. Having fallen in love, long ago, with Al Green’s version of To Sir with Love, he is eager to learn more about the songwriter Don Black. He can even make a convincing case for Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs: “You can’t just do Tom Waits and Elvis Costello covers, because everyone else is going to be doing them. You can find the greatest songs just by taking them out of their pop context. By being really corny, you can sometimes be cooler than anything just by finding the beauty in a simple melody. You can find the greatest songs in the strangest places. You’ve just got to turn over the right rock.”
– Clive Davis