Reviews of the Curtis Stigers in performance. Read what “the experts” are saying.
Reporter Dana Oland, on vacation in Paris, caught a show Monday by Curtis Stigers at the JVC Jazz Festival Paris
PARIS — Most Boiseans know Curtis Stigers as a jazz singer, songwriter and community activist who supports environmental and social causes.
He’s been a hometown hero since a string of pop hits took him to national fame in the 1990s. His spotlight in the jazz world shines brighter with each concert and album release.
His latest CD, “Real Emotional,” (Concord, $14.99) took him this week to Paris, where he is a respected jazz artist with a growing international reputation.
Clive Davis, London Times
Scanning the coverage of Curtis Stigerss rebirth as a jazz singer the best in the business, I would say tells you an awful lot about how the media loves to fall back on lazy preconceptions. Some people, it seems, just cannot get past the fact that the American vocalist used to be a fluffy, platinum-selling soft-rocker. This somehow prevents them from taking him seriously as a jazz artist, even though jazz was one of his early passions.
Well, there are only two solutions for such wilful blindness. Either you get hold of his most recent albums or you must catch his seven-night residency. Yes, it really is possible to make jazz entertaining without resorting to FM radio Muzak or glib theatrics. Stigers can switch on the bebop pulse as easily as many more fashionable names. What he also possesses, unlike many of his peers, is the rare knack of turning high-class pop material into first-rate vehicles for improvisation.
London Times – Clive Davis
(4 out of 5 stars)
NEARLY 30 years ago (yes, it is almost that long) the Police began smuggling reggae into the charts with I Can’t Stand Losing You. Curtis Stigers, who has embarked on a lengthy run in Soho, takes the same song and turns it into a jazz number without sacrificing any of its vitality. Only the most assured singers could make that transition.
Slowly but surely, the American singer is beginning to receive the attention he deserves. Old habits die hard, and an awful lot of people still tend to think of him as the shaggy-haired purveyor of platinum-selling blue-eyed soul. That was another era, another universe. The modern-day Stigers is sharper and leaner and bears more than a passing resemblance to Morrissey, while his music has evolved on to another plane altogether.
I cannot think of another vocalist who creates such an exuberant combination of bebop artistry and raw emotion. Chicago’s poet-in-residence, Kurt Elling, has more cachet among purists, perhaps, but he lacks the range and extrovert charm. Stigers, on the other hand, has the potential and charisma to become, well, the thinking person’s Michael Buble.
A fair segment of his audience still expects him to sing the old hits, and he duly obliges with I Wonder Why and You’re All That Matters To Me. Otherwise this was another of his uncompromisingly robust straight-ahead sets, with the pianist Matthew Fries, drummer Keith Hall and bassist Phil Palombi supplying immaculate accompaniment. The trio are as smooth and sleek as you could ask, but when grit and grease and a little R&B are required, the musicians are never at a loss. Stigers also adds some suitably punchy saxophone solos.
The programme hurtled in all directions. Willie Dixon’s My Babe shuffled and danced; Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right sneaked in a few Elvis-isms. The lovelorn Elvis Costello-Cait O’Riordan ballad, Baby Plays Around, has been a fixture in his repertoire for some years now, and shows no signs of losing its edge. Even so, it was overshadowed by the delicate, moonstruck emotions of Columbus Avenue, one of the original tunes on the new album, I Think it’s Going to Rain Today. Stigers wears his heart on his sleeve without slipping into sentimentality.
Crazy supplied a winning detour into country and western nostalgia. Mose Allison’s Everybody Cryin’ Mercy, written in the Vietnam era, remains as urgent and compelling as ever. Something for everyone, in other words.
Special to The Los Angeles Times – By Don Heckman
Singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers can be praised for a lot of things: his powerful sense of swing, his way with a lyric, the inherent musicality of his interpretations. But he should be praised for something else as well, an attribute that is rare among the legions of jazz singers who have arrived in the last decade or so: his decision to build a jazz vocal repertoire almost entirely on the music from the post-Great American Songbook era.
On Tuesday at the Jazz Bakery, Stigers, who was accompanied by pianist Matthew Fries, drummer Keith Hall and bassist Phil Palombi, sang an opening set that did not include a single so-called standard, not a single note from Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins. Instead, he turned to songwriters such as Joe Jackson (“Fools in Love”), Elvis Costello (“Baby Plays Around”), Arthur Crudup (“That’s All Right”), Willie Nelson (“Crazy”) and Mose Allison (“Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy”) and added a few of his own numbers (“Columbus Avenue” and “Lullaby on the Hudson”) written with keyboardist Larry Goldings.
It was an intriguing program for a jazz singer, and one that worked as well as it did primarily because Stigers is that and more. With a solid pop-music background, an affinity for the blues and a voice with a buzz-saw cutting edge, he brought vitality to everything he sang.
Stigers topped off an impressive evening with a high-gear rendering of “Billie’s Bounce,” tossing in several great scat passages, including a spot-on impression of a hard-swinging bass solo.
“Using all of his performance know-how from over three decades as a singer, songwriter and saxophonist, Curtis Stigers, backed by the excellent Tri-Fi, brought verve and passion to an evening of lounge bar swing in the austere surroundings of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday.
Stigers has been through many musical phases throughout his long career, but has now cast aside his rock ballads for a return to his jazz roots. Matthew Fries (piano), Phil Palombi (double bass), Keith Hall (drums) and Stigers himself strolled onstage besuited in grey pin stripes, as though about to entertain a Las Vegas cocktail party crowd with some Rat Pack numbers, and then kicked off the set with Lennon and McCartney’s ‘I Feel Fine’.
Stigers’ latest album You Inspire Me, (voted Jazz Album of 2003 by the Sunday Times), is a compilation of covers blending jazz with an array of related styles. As the evening progressed we were treated to songs by such diverse artists as Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Willie Dixon and “famous jazz band” The Kinks.
In between songs, Stigers regaled the audience with lengthy, humorous anecdotes on the background of the numbers, and he explained that his ‘Swinging Down on 10th and Main’ was a tribute to his early days jamming with legendary pianist Gene Harris in the 1970s. “He taught Boise, Idaho to swing… and that wasn’t easy, believe me.”
As promised, the band came back after the interval fortified with a drink and “playing even better”. The solos became more frequent and intense, and the tempo slowed with a moving rendition of the love song, ‘I Wonder Why’.
Stigers himself was happy, when not singing or playing saxophone, to leave the limelight to his band, before rounding the evening off with an outstanding passage of scat singing and an air double bass solo that no one in the house will forget in a hurry.
All in all it was an exciting, enjoyable and very diverse evening of swinging jazz, performed by consummate masters of the art.”
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
Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“Rock ‘n’ roll and jazz share so many of the same artistic bloodlines that it’s remarkable the two don’t fuse more often into the kind of inspired marriage of visceral clout and intellectual savvy conjured by the singer, songwriter and saxophonist Curtis Stigers.
Vocally, Mr. Stigers, who is appearing at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel (59 West 44th Street) through Feb. 8, suggests an emotionally chafed hybrid of Elvis Costello and the bebopper Mark Murphy. If his voice is heftier and his phrasing more fluent than Mr. Costello’s, it has the same acidic quiver.
Mr. Stigers also likes to weave Murphyesque scat solos into his performances, but he never carries them to the fantastic outer reaches of expression visited by his prototype. While his backup trio — the pianist Matthew Fries, the bassist Gregory Ryan and the drummer Keith Hall —play muscular straight-ahead jazz, his own tenor saxophone solos spice up the arrangements with a raw rock ‘n’ roll honk.
A native of Boise, Idaho, who bears a striking physical resemblance to the actor Bill Pullman, Mr. Stigers achieved prominence more than a decade ago when he was marketed by Arista Records as a jazzier Billy Joel. Since then he has developed a leaner, edgier style, moved to Concord Records and established a reputation as a connoisseur of songs.
The catholicity of his taste and the refinement of his ear were evident at Tuesday’s opening-night show, which segued from a jumping “You’re Driving Me Crazy” into a hard-swinging “Centerpiece,” then into a hypnotic, tortured rendition of Mr. Costello’s “Baby Plays Around.” On the rockier side of the fence was a hot, punchy rendition of the country-rocker Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues.” Randy Newman’s bleak “Living With You” made an offbeat but affecting choice as a stunned personal response to 9/11. In almost every instance, Mr. Stigers made a compelling case for the song as a candidate for inclusion in an expanding canon of popular standards.”
– Stephen Holden
Variety, Robert L. Daniels
“In his Oak Room debut, Curtis Stigers blends old standards, dating back to the ’30s and ’40s, with “new” standards by such contemporary composers as Steve Earle, Randy Newman and Barry Mann. After more than a decade as a busy pop performer, the singer-musician-composer is crossing over to the elusive terrain of jazz vocalist. A singer with the kind of rusty twang associated with Hoagy Carmichael, Stigers hits the songbook trail with an amiable approach and puts his aud into a pleasurable, finger-snapping groove.
Stigers picks up the tenor sax to accent some of his gritty excursions into jazz and blues. He plays with earthy vigor and a biting tone. “Centerpiece” is a classic Basie romp by Harry “Sweets” Edison and Jon Hendricks, and Stigers lays it in a romping frame.
There is an appreciative nod to pianist Gene Harris, Stigers’ mentor, who died two years ago. As a young clarinet player, Stigers hooked up with Harris in Boise, Idaho, jazz haunts. An original, dedicated to Harris, “Swinging Down at Tenth and Main,” is a flavorful salute to backroom jam sessions. Piano support from Matthew Fries is a distinct asset.
Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart” is given a sensitive interpretation, with the verse neatly tacked on to the closing refrain. The reverse works as a poignant postscript to a classic torch song. The film theme is featured on his new Concord CD, “Secret Heart.” Newman’s “So Hard Livin’ Without You” is crooned with whispering melancholy.
The evening’s closer found Stigers hitting the hip Nat King Cole trail with “I Keep Going Back to Joe’s,” another torcher about an empty table in the corner. The slate is a carefully spaced program of blues and ballads, and Stigers’ entry into Harry Connick/John Pizzarelli terrain is most welcome.
Reed instruments and drums are becoming frequent sounds in the intimate environs of the Algonquin Hotel, with recent appearances by Stacey Kent and tenorist Jim Tomlinson, and a forthcoming run by Peter Cincotti and his swinging sidemen. For wintry nights, the Oak Room is offering a heady menu of warm jazz.”
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.”
Los Angeles Times
“Mention an area of the pop music business, and there’s a pretty good chance it’s been inhabited at some time or other by Curtis Stigers. The fine singer-saxophonist has toured with Eric Clapton and Elton John (among many others), recorded with Al Green and Gene Harris, and had his own top 10 hit with “I Wonder Why” in 1991.
Despite his colorfully diverse resume, Stigers insists that his true love is jazz. And his performance at Lunaria’s intimate jazz room on Friday night affirmed his affection for and his skill with the genre.