A Rockin’ Jazzman (or Is He a Jazzy Rocker?) Ignites a Quiet Cabaret
POSTED: June 11, 2009

STEPHEN HOLDEN, The New York Times

A lean, pop-jazz hipster whose buzz-saw voice, much like that of Tom Waits, slices away glib sentimentality, Curtis Stigers is not the usual sort of act one finds at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, although he has played there before. (The last time was five years ago.) Depending on your definition he is either a rock ’n’ roll jazz man who plays a honking saxophone that echoes his raw, craggy singing or a jazz-influenced rocker.

Either way his renditions of standards by Mr. Waits, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, to name three songwriters whose work he sang at Tuesday’s opening-night show of a two-week engagement, were tough, rhythmically sneaky reinventions to which his voice imparted an intensely personal stamp.

He got to the slippery bottom of Mr. Newman’s “Real Emotional Girl,” whose narrator, in a tone of wonderment tinged with contempt and guilt, describes the behavior of a girlfriend who cries in her sleep and who

turns on easy

it’s like a hurricane

you would not believe it

you have to hold on tight.

The storyteller knows full well that such intimate details should be kept private, but he can’t help himself.

The angular version Mr. Stigers offered of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records classic “That’s All Right” illustrated the stylistic proximity of rockabilly and cool jazz; the difference is largely a matter of instrumentation and phrasing. Mr. Stigers’s saxophone and John Sneider’s trumpet in a band that included Rick Germanson’s modified bebop piano and Cliff Schmitt on bass took the song into an imaginary jazz cellar of the 1950s.

There is another element in Mr. Stigers’s music about which he clearly harbors some ambivalence and perhaps even embarrassment. “I have a previous life as a pop sensation,” he joked. “But it was the 1840s, and I had a hit record.” That song, “I Wonder Why,” a collaboration with Glen Ballard, which he dutifully tossed off, was a Top 10 single in 1991.

The more recent original songs Mr. Stigers performed — “You’ve Got the Fever” (written with Tom Jensen) and two collaborations with Larry Goldings, “The Dreams of Yesterday” and “I Need You,” discard commercial formulas to explore abject passion, regret and marital ambivalence in stripped-down directness. The self-portrait they evoke is of a restless, thin-skinned dreamer perched on the edge of an emotional volcano.

Curtis Stigers performs through June 20 at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 419-9331, algonquinhotel.com.