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Sometimes it's tough for jazz enthusiasts to cast aside biases about pop music and listen to artists afresh, as if they were hearing a musician or a singer for the first time. And sometimes jazz enthusiastsand jazz musiciansbegrudge success condescendingly, as if the diminution of innate talent is a function of the increase in financial reward.
In Curtis Stigers' case, he really does deserve a renewed interest in his jazz singing ability, which had been there all along. Moving to New York from Idaho to start a pop career, Stigers got what he wished for, and more. Immediately, he achieved popularity and acclaim, recording albums with sales far above those of most jazz recordings. And yet, he became a victim of his own success, caught up in the whirlwind of touring and recording and succumbing to the identity that Arista Records imposed on him.
Now that Stigers has had the opportunity to sing a jazz record, at the encouragement of Randy Brecker, it becomes evident that jazz may be his true metier, and not pop, even as he keeps one foot in the pop world doorway.
That synthesis reveals that some contemporary song-writers excel in memorable lyrics and catchy phrasing too and that classic song-writing didn't end when Gershwin or Porter passed. Randy Newman, for one, has been writing affecting songs, mostly in association with movie soundtracks, for decades now. His "Marie" would go right to the heart of any female named "Marie" who is the recipient of this simple and affecting sentiment: "I loved you the first time I saw you, and I always will love you, Marie." And Elvis Costello's "Baby Plays Around" effectively puts words to the ambivalent sentiment of the befooled lover, "And so it seems I've always been the last to know. To hold on to that girl, I had to let her go. I wish to God I didn't love her so, 'cause Baby plays around."
With those current-day song-writers as a starting point, Stigers moves into more jazz-acceptable tracks that don't really make a point about his ability as much as giving him the vocal release he has needed for a decade. With an outstanding rhythm section, Stigers emphasizes the lyrics of the tunes without adornment or artifice, as good jazz singers do. Stigers didn't forget the lessons of Gene Harris when he studied with the piano master as an adolescent in Boise: Concentrate on the lyrics and swing. Those lessons achieve fruition on "Sweets" Edison's and Jon Hendricks' "Centerpiece," the voice anticipating the beat and creating its own swing even before Doky's bass walks in. A jam session of sorts, the tune allows Stigers to develop a melodic tenor sax solo before Doky and Goldings come in to emphasize the rhythmic pulse of the tune.
It seems that Mark Murphy had an equal or greater influence on Stigers' style than Hendricks, though. Stigers' presentation of "Parker's Mood" refers directly to Murphy's Bop For Kerouac album, complete with a literally intact introduction. "I Keep Going Back To Joe's" incorporates Murphyisms right down to the attention to sibilances, suspension of the vowels, separating phrases into their own story-telling elements and the combination of Irish tenor range with jazz sensibilities.
Now, Stigers does seem to prove a point on "Billie's Bounce," as he breaks loose in a rapid outpouring of lyrics before taking the remaining choruses before the wrap-up in scat.
Larry Goldings performs against expectations as well, creating bluesy solos of his ownfull of block chords, respectful balladic accompaniment and quicksilver bop linesthat aren't as evident when he plays organ, which doesn't possess the same percussiveness as the piano.
On Baby Plays Around, Stigers gets to record the album that has been welling up within him as long as he has been singing pop. Rather than "discovering" jazz after attaining recognition as a pop singer, it turns out that Stigers knew jazz all along. Baby Plays Around reveals that there are fine male jazz singers in the wings, either impoverished by the unsuccessful attempts at recognition or constrained by success in another genre.
Track Listing: But Not For Me, Baby Plays Around, Centerpiece*, Marie, Let's Get Lost, Love, Billie's Bounce, Everything Happens To Me, Parker's Mood*, All The Things You Are, I Keep Going Back To Joe's, All Of You, You Are Too Beautiful
Personnel: Curtis Stigers, vocals, tenor sax*; Randy Brecker, trumpet, flugelhorn; Larry Goldings, piano; Dennis Irwin, Chris Minh Doky, bass; Bill Stewart, Adam Nussbaum, drums
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.