The Wall Street Journal is Bullish on Curtis Stigers
POSTED: July 30, 2011

Wall Street Journal

July 29, 2011

When Curtis Stigers came on stage on Wednesday night it felt as if someone had upped the wattage in the bulbs. It ought to have been no surprise that Mr. Stigers is a competent turn on stage—this is, after all, a man whose first album sold more than 1.5 million copies. But I hadn’t quite been prepared for the sheer brio with which he tears into a crowd. The course of his career, and the chat I had had with him that morning, had given me the impression that this was a man backing away from the limelight.

And Ronnie Scott’s in Soho in central London, while the city’s best-known jazz club, and a place which has attracted the most stellar figures in the genre, holds no more than 250 people. Though they are jam-packed into the place, it’s hardly stadium rock. Yet, waving his saxophone in front of his body as if he were the lead guitarist in a 1980s hair metal band, Mr. Stigers is somehow contriving to suggest that this tiny venue is built along the lines of Madison Square Gardens.

Of course, Mr. Stigers used to have a lot of hair, and give concerts of that sort. Those who are only familiar with his hits “I Wonder Why” and “You’re All That Matters to Me,” from 1991, probably associate him with middle of the road soft rock ballads of the sort that Michael Bolton made his stock-in-trade. But over a pot of tea at a hotel around the corner from the club where he would be performing later, with his saxophone in a bag beside him, he is a more thoughtful, reserved-looking figure, who looks what he is these days—a classy purveyor of the staples of the Great American Songbook.

He seems slightly sheepish, but only slightly, at the reminder of his enormous earlier pop success. “What that period did, and I’m grateful for,” he says, “was give me a career. It allows me to tour—almost always over here, rather than in America—and work on songs. The older I get as a singer the less interested in being impressive I am and the more interested I am in the song and the story. I mean, I can scat sing and I studied music and there were times in my life when I definitely oversang, but now I want to do less, to serve the song.”

By accident, Mr. Stigers has managed to construct for himself the kind of career that many musicians would envy. As album sales have been hit by downloads and the growth in internet file-sharing, most artists now rely on touring for an income. “I know, I look kind of a genius now, because I decided quite early that I would rather not worry about selling albums but concentrate on selling tickets for shows,” he says. “I don’t like to do too much, though. If I do 100 dates, that would be a big year for me these days. I’ve got an 11-year-old daughter and I hate being away from her. I’m kind of a homebody.”

This decision—which in retrospect looks like a remarkably canny move—may have been partly prompted by his early disagreements with his record label which, after the chart success of his first record (to say nothing of his appearance on the soundtrack of “The Bodyguard,” an album which sold 17 million copies in the U.S. alone), was understandably keen to promote him as a rock/soul singer. But Mr. Stigers’ musical tastes have always been more catholic than those early recordings suggested.

“I love pop music,” he says. “I grew up listening to it on the radio in Idaho and I loved Elton John, Stevie Wonder, all that stuff. I learned to harmonize by the time I was five, but I listened to everything. As a teenager I discovered punk—about three years after the Sex Pistols had already split—and I was mainly a punk rock drummer then. But I’d learned clarinet and saxophone at school, so there was always jazz, because that’s the music for those instruments. I had broad tastes.”

He is cagey, though, about the temptation jazz offers for musicians to sacrifice the audience’s pleasure to virtuosity. “Jazz is a language that’s a little more challenging to learn than pop music or even the blues. All music takes a moment for your ear to turn to, but jazz especially, because there’s that bit more to navigate and know about it,” he says. “I think a great jazz musician, no matter how complicated the music he’s playing is, communicates with an audience. I think if you’d been lucky enough to see someone like John Coltrane, even if what he was doing was technically very challenging, and you didn’t get all of it—not to get all metaphysical about it, but the transcendence of what he did—it’s going to knock you out.”

In concert, Mr. Stigers concentrates on the jazz standards—there is, indeed, some scat, admirably spot on in tone and pitch, during his rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird”—but what sets him apart is his readiness to expand the repertoire. The wide musical hinterland of his upbringing and his excursions into the world of pop make unexpected appearances; there is a brilliant cover of a Randy Newman number, and while performing his own song “You’ve Got the Fever,” co-written with a bass player from his home town of Boise, there are sly nods not only to Peggy Lee, but even Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

“For a long time jazz musicians just didn’t cover popular songs from about the 50s on,” he says. “Because, I guess, rock and roll killed the ability to make a living playing jazz, and they just shunned that whole body of work for decades. Every so often someone would cover ‘Michelle’ by the Beatles or something, because it has jazz chords anyway, but the view was rock music sucked.”

Before that, as he points out, jazz did reinterpret popular songs—particularly show tunes. “Something like ‘My Favorite Things’ or ‘How High the Moon’— they weren’t jazz standards until they became jazz standards,” he says. “When I write, actually, I tend to concentrate on melody and I write on the guitar because I’m not that great of a guitarist; though in Boise, there are great players near where I work, so I just knock on the wall and get them over.”

Mr. Stigers then reimagines these songs, and others by popular songwriters, for a jazz band.

“I have tried many times to write songs with jazz musicians and they always sound like ‘Ba-ba-do-ba-do-ba-doobie-do’; some really angular instrumental thing that you could never write a lyric to. But because my playing on harmonic instruments is pretty basic, it suits me to write something much simpler.

“I’ll write a song that sounds like Neil Young or Loudon Wainwright or Al Green or something and then take it to bits with the band and put it back together as a jazz tune. You’ve got to put yourself out there and make those mistakes, and sometimes it doesn’t work.”

And sometimes, as on Wednesday night, it works very well indeed.

Curtis Stigers plays Ronnie Scott’s tonight and the Edinburgh Jazz Festival on Sunday.