Boz Scaggs is crooning Duke's "Sophisticated Lady"? Thee Boz Scaggs? The "Lowdown" guy? The creator of the "Lido Shuffle"? Yep. There's only one Boz Scaggs.
Having done blues, R&B, slick pop music and combinations of the three, maybe it was just time, but the latest singer to tackle the repertoire of the American Popular Songbook is none other the Scaggs, with the release earlier this year of But Beautiful. It's a mellow album, and it is done with a jazz band. There are no attempts to take "Easy Living' and modernize it. The songs are done in a sincere, tender style, backed by a jazz group with pianist Paul Nagel as the point man. He's also the guy that encouraged Scaggs to try this classic music.
Scaggs, who's now 59 and still performs his pop hits with another group of musicians, says he is simply a singer who is moving into new ground, but he is not a jazz singer. "It's a record of standards for me. I'm not a jazz singer. The guys I work with are solid jazz players," he says. "I am not a jazz singer. I wouldn't place myself on that footing. I wouldn't even enter that arena.
The lyrics of the all-ballad disc are sung straightforward, with pregnant pauses between phrases. Not much improvisation - no flights of fancybut a delivery that's pleasing to the ears and not out of character with the song. The music is delivered in good fashion. "What's New" is sung over a soft jumping beat, the lyric intoned without much improvisation. "How Long Has This Been Going On?" is soft and sincere, with a mellow sax break from Eric Crystal. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is slow and heartfelt. Nagel is the glue throughout the record. The title song is delivered over a soft pulsing beat. The band is very supportive and the disc is solid. Don't think Rod Stewart's sorry, mundane fumbling through the classics last year. There is naturalness and quality here.
Not a bad effort from this blues, rock and R&B guy raised in Texas and Oklahoma, who cut his teeth with the Steve Miller band and went into some serious blues. He smashed the charts in 1976 with Silk Degrees that contained "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle." He also laid out of music in the '80s and returned in the '90s with more pop and R&B. And now its songs like "I Should Care." It may seem an odd transition to some, but not to Scaggs.
Scaggs says he and Nagel toyed with standards going back three or four years. "I don't think the intention was clearly stated that this was going to become a record, but no doubt each of us had it in mind that it could turn into something that we would enjoy expanding on. I've been doing my other music, writing and touring and so forth, but this material just sort of grew out of its own little space."
About a year ago, April of 2002, it got more serious. "There's a point at which there was time for me and my studio was available. We spent a day playing songs and recoding them. I guess we did about 20 songs that afternoon and I lived with them for a few weeks.
"The questions in my mind were whether I had any business getting into this material. I consider this idiom practically sacred ground. I've seen too many people of my ilk, pop musicians of my generation, getting into this material and becoming a little intoxicated with it and not coming out so well, in my opinion. Not only people of my ilk, but a lot of people in a lot of areas get in trouble in this area. So I wanted to see if I really fit into this at all. I was encouraged by Paul and the musicians. And then after we had some material in hand, some material recorded, I was encouraged by others to go ahead and pursue this project. So we set a recording date last September. We cut the stuff in three days and that's how this CD came to be."
Scaggs is serious about the music. He doesn't plan for it to be a gimmick record. He has a tour ready with this jazz band, and he also hopes to do more CDs of this classic American songbook.
"I'm a singer primarily. I've just been following my instincts. I was a guitarist first off. So I followed my interests in the guitar wherever it took me. I listened to classical guitar and Spanish guitar, as well as jazz guitar players, rock and roll and blues. All of it. I did the same thing with my voice.
"My earliest influences were things I heard in my household. My parents were music lovers and collectors. It was around. You don't have to go too far out of the way to be familiar with hundreds and hundreds of these songs. I've been listening to all kinds of music, including jazz, ever since I was a kid in the mid-50s. I have listened to all the singers, many of whom have performed this work. It's been around. I guess my blues background has led me to singers like Ray Charles and Bobby Bland, T-Bone Walker. Those kind of musicians from that era. They have certainly drifted into the American songbook from time to time. It's there."
The music, with its more complex chord changes, is a new challenge for this pop master, but one he relishes. Like so many, he enjoyed the music as part of his background growing up. And he's proud of the effort and the product.
"It is a good feeling. I'm proud of this work. I love performing it/ it's not different from anything I've been doing all along in terms of being a singer and being in front of an audience. I love working with the quartet. I have more freedom and flexibility. It's more stimulating than most material I've done in the past, except for pure blues and basic R&B, where I get to play guitar too. I'm having a wonderful time with this material. It's taken me into areas of challenge and acceptability that I've never had. That's always stimulating to someone who's been doing this as long as I have."
The group already toured for a month and will soon go to Europe, playing this music, as well as expanding into some upbeat, faster tempo songs for more variety, he says. Scaggs has commitments to play his pop music this summer, but then the jazz players will regroup and play gigs through the end of the year. He says he's very into this current group and the music, and wouldn't even be doing the Silk Degrees stuff this summer if the commitments weren't made previously.
"I wouldn't have done it, except I had commitments and I had schedule a live taping and recording for a Greatest Hits package that I'm doing. So I'll be out for four weeks and do that," he noted.
"My short-term goal is to try to reach my audience from the current record. It's so ballady, there's not too many settings with that sort of intimacy. It's not going to be easy to play just that, so I've expanded the repertoire to include some of my stuff where I can play some guitar and be a little bluesy, and R&B and jump a little bit. Include some up-tempo, varied material. That's going to open up some territory I think."
Skaggs influences were mainly black R&B and rock and blues, but his parents were music lovers and collectors and he listened to jazz and popular music that came from an earlier era as well. Musically, his generation was affected by other things, but that influence on Skaggs was not exclusive. He's heard a lot of singers take on the classics.
"The female singers I've listened to, more than the male singers. Nat Cole or Chet Baker or to Johnny Hartman, Ray Charles. Those are the male singers I enjoy listening to in that vein. But it's the Shirley Horns. I was exposed to Nancy Wilson when I was in high school. She was out of San Antonio and I got her first records when I was 19. Sarah Vaughan and Ella and Billie Holiday. There are so many women who seem to be able to handle this material better, because of the emotional qualities. There's a whole lot of songs that men just can't do. The words are from another time and represent too much of an emotional commitment, whereas women can say that because of who they are.
"As far as other instrumentalists, I used to love mellow sax players like Paul Desmond. I love piano. If there's any single thing I could point to that makes me want to be involved in this material, it's having listened to Bill Evans for many years. Or recently, to hear some of the ballads of Brad Meldhau. The way they frame those melodies harmonically, it's absolutely irresistible to want to sing in that beautiful domain they create. That's why I was so eager to join Paul Nagel, because he's stylistically in that vein of those keyboard players that I love."
The blues, says Skaggs, "was the first thing I was able to play. I come from an area where that music was around a lot. My first love was the sound of guitar. I tried to play all styles. As a guitarist, you can gravitate to the blues because you can play it easily. It's not a style that's difficult to pick up. It's purely emotive and dead easy to get a start with. I did that when I was in high school. I've always had an affinity for that music. But my generation realized we could write our own music and develop our own styles. In my case, being around rock and roll. So I've been in the rock world and blues and rhythm and blues in an area of Texas where there was a lot of live music. Styles sort of overlapped.
"Quite frankly, I've always listened to the black side of the radio dial. Where I grew up, there was a lot of it and there was a lot of live music around. So I've always liked whatever the current definition of R&B was on the radio. R&B was pretty basic stuff in the early 60s. It became more and more sophisticated and urbanized and the chords progressed into becoming Stax Records or Motown. There was a group of wonderful writers and arrangers in the Philadelphia area, as well as New York. The harmonics became more complex and that's where I learned. That was my school. My songwriting and my style became more complex as I listened, learned, borrowed and stole and put my music together."
But his recent love affair with the music so often associated with jazz is going to continue, he says.
There are extra songs already in the can from the recording session, and on tour in Japan in order to beef up the band's repertoire, "we took some more up-tempo things and some Latin things to expand the book quite a bit. So there's quite a bit of material we have in hand that would naturally be the next volume," says Scaggs.
"But I think the reason I called it that came out of a notion in my head, once Paul and I started, that this is something I'm going to do for myself whether this is ever released or not. I will continue to record this stuff. I like to go into the book and find these songs, and if it's just Paul Nagel and myself doing it, we will continue to do this. Was it Art Tatum who just kept adding to the volumes, seven or eight or nine? The material is there and if you have the time and place to do it, which I have, I will continue to add to it."