Primary Instrument: Saxophone
Curtis Stigers is at the forefront of a new generation of jazz singers. With one of the most distinctive voices in music, Stigers pushes the boundaries of conventional jazz performers and expands the jazz repertory, creating modern jazz standards. Throughout his career, singer/songwriter/saxophonist Stigers has been celebrated for a surprisingly wide variety of impressive accomplishments--from his early pop chart success with several self-penned, top-ten singles and hit albums and an appearance on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard” (one of the biggest selling albums of all time), to Downbeat Magazine naming him as one of the jazz genre's “Rising Male Stars” and the London Times selecting his recording, You Inspire Me, as the number one jazz album of 2003. He's toured the world in concert with such renowned pop artists as Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Prince, while also sharing the bill with such jazz greats as George Benson, Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Hancock, Randy and Michael Brecker and Toots Thielmans. Stigers has performed his hits on “The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” in the US, and has been called “one of the best male jazz singers of his generation” by JazzTimes. He's appeared on albums by Al Green, Jules Shear, Suzzy Roche, and Julia Fordham, as well as his early mentor, jazz piano legend Gene Harris. His refusal to stand still, and his consistent desire to grow and evolve musically, has earned him admiration and recognition--and kept the critics guessing.
Real Emotional (Concord Records)
“I'm a storyteller,” says Stigers. “I love nothing better than to tell a moving, emotional story with a beautiful song.” A commitment to songcraft serves as the touchstone for Stigers, who sings with hip sophistication and subtle swing, exquisite phrasing and depth of emotion. “That's what my career has been about,” he says. “I take advantage of great songs. It's all about getting inside a song and its lyrics.” While he's a top-drawer jazz singer as well as a fine tenor saxophonist, on his fifth Concord Records CD, Real Emotional, Stigers decided that rather than focus on making a jazz disc, he simply wanted to “make an album of great songs. I wasn't going to worry about recording barnburners with long blowing sections or scat solos. In fact, I don't scat at all on this album. I just set out to let the songs--their emotion and beauty--determine what the recording would become.”
With Real Emotional, Stigers delivers a sumptuous twelve-pack of “great songs” that includes impressive renderings of new standards written by the creme de la creme of contemporary pop songwriters (comprising Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Dan Zanes and Randy Newman), a lush take on a Great American Songbook classic (Hoagy Carmichael's “Stardust”), a funk-inflected jaunt through Mose Allison's witty “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” and three indelible originals that stand tall as highlights among the covers.
Co-produced by Stigers and his longtime collaborator, keyboardist Larry Goldings, Real Emotional is at once soothing and poignant, playful and romantic, soulful and disenchanted. The pair decided to experiment with their regular live recording process by meeting together first to hammer out arrangements and record tracks sans the band, and with the occasional overdub. “This CD came about in a more premeditated way,” says Stigers. “We wanted to have a bit more control of where the songs would go and then build them. So Larry and I got together in the studio and tried things out. In the end, some of the tracks are live-in-the-studio performances without any overdubs and some are layered a bit more.” Stigers pauses, then notes, “I love dueting with Larry. He's such an inspiring musician, and he always brings out the best in me.”
Stigers cites two tunes that are essentially piano-and-vocal duos: a striking read of Paul Simon's “American Tune,” that takes the songwriter's words “weary to the bone” to the marrow, and Randy Newman's heartfelt “Real Emotional Girl,” slowly rendered with pathos and sweetness. As for the former, Stigers says that the tune, written during America's bleakest Nixon administration days, resonates with the political turmoil of today in the U.S. as well as reminds him of the time when his parents divorced. “American Tune is about a loss of innocence, about the disillusionment and betrayal that Americans felt then. Sadly, it seems we've been betrayed by our leaders again, and that's why I was compelled to record this song now.”
The latter tune--Stigers has recorded a Newman song on all five of his Concord albums, including the title track of his last release, I Think It's Going to Rain Today--often brings tears to the singer's eyes when he sings it. “Randy is my favorite songwriter,” he says. “His songs always get to me. This one is heartbreakingly beautiful. Perfect.”
For the bulk of the songs, Stigers is joined by his fine gigging band, including keyboardist Matthew Fries, bassist Phil Palombi and drummer Keith Hall. Particularly impressive is trumpeter John “Scrapper” Sneider, who improvises into the heart of the tunes he performs on.
At 41, Stigers continues to grow as one of a handful of critically-acclaimed, forward-thinking male jazz vocalists. Real Emotional solidifies that standing while also emphasizing his open-minded approach to music. Significantly impressive is Stigers' ability to write his own songs, including the soulful song “I Only Want to Be With You” (”a nice little country/folk song performed by a great jazz group,” quips Stigers) written several years ago with his younger brother Jake Stigers. Curtis takes a mean r&b tenor saxophone solo on this one. Also featured are two collaborations with Goldings, the playful, quirky chat-up song, “A Woman Just Like You” (the first time Stigers has employed backing vocals on a jazz record), and the melancholic lowlights number, “I Need You.”
“I Need You” is another piano-vocal track. “We talked about adding strings,” Stigers says, “but I liked the feeling of isolation the piano/vocal achieved. It's a severe, harrowing tune that asks the question, ‘Is this love over?' It's the most raw, naked, moment on the record.”
While Stigers only plays one old-time standard, he strikes gold with “Stardust,” which features guest guitarist John Pizzarelli. “This is my wife's favorite song,” says Stigers. “She's a dancer/choreographer and she often uses this tune in the studio when making dances. I'm a fan of Willie Nelson's version from the 70's, but this take is very much inspired by Dave McKenna's stride piano version. ‘Stardust' is a masterpiece of a song, and it fits in well with the new standards. A great song's a great song, from any era.”
Real Emotional opens with Dylan's classic “I'll Be Your Baby Tonight,” in a swinging version that Stigers describes as “Dean Martin on acid.” Stigers continues “Larry's accordion sets this apart and gives it a fresh, unusual sound. I made sure Larry played a lot of accordian on this album. It's an important thread, throughout, and unusual for a jazz record.” Another killer track is the Emmylou Harris/Jill Cunniff (of Luscious Jackson) song, “I Don't Want to Talk About It Now” from Harris's Red Dirt Girl album, that Stigers also says is supreme. Stigers adds, “It's a somewhat disturbing song about sexual obsession, and I get weak in the knees when Emmylou sings it. Very sexy…”
Other beauties include a brush-and-sway, re-harmonized spin on Stephin Merritt's “As You Turn to Go” that Stigers was fascinated by in the soundtrack of the film, Pieces of April; a lovely take on Tom Waits' “San Diego Serenade” that features Hall's march-like snare drum lines and another fine tenor sax break; Dan Zanes' soft-shoe, Wurlitzer-infused “Night Owl” that Stigers's young daughter introduced him to; and Mose Allison's sarcastic chestnut on which everyone in the band gets a chance to stretch out in a jam-like setting.
As to why Stigers appropriated Real Emotional from the Newman song for the CD title, he says, “I seldom know what a body of work is going to add up to, what it's going to mean, until after the sessions. Coming up with the name of an album is always the hardest thing for me. But this title works perfectly. It's real because of the honesty and truth written into every song, and it's a deeply emotional experience every time I sing these songs, every time I tell these stories. It's all about the storytelling.