Curtis Stigers

Pop supremo turned jazz stylist Curtis Stigers is a happy man. With a new lady in his life, and content in his chosen musical direction, the songwriter, vocalist and tenor sax virtuoso is looking forward once again to February 14th , with a new record that’s perfect for those romantic nights in.

GrapevineLIVE’s Graham Cleaver chats to Curtis Stigers about his love of singer/songwriters, discusses his musical directions, and finds out why he is singing ‘Hooray For Love’…

Curtis – congratulations on the new album!

Why, thank you – I’m really happy with it.

You’re over here in the UK at the moment touring – you visited England last Autumn as part of your European tour, and you played a couple of dates just before Christmas at Ronnie Scott’s, which have had terrific reviews.

I love Ronnie Scott’s – we do two residencies a year there. We did a week in the summer, and it’s like home to us when the band and I come to London. The audience and the vibe at Ronnie Scott’s is amazing. I love to play concerts rather than clubs, but if you’ve got to play in clubs Ronnie Scott’s is the place – a quintessential large jazz club venue; somehow it seems, you know – real.

I’m sure they respect your jazz credentials there too. When you play concerts in the UK I guess audiences are waiting to hear those big pop hits from the 90s…

Well, I am well aware that no matter where I play people are going to want to hear those songs, you know? There’s a lot of people who discovered me from my jazz, but there’s a lot of people who come to my shows who discovered me in the early 90s and they want to hear ‘Wonder Why’, they want to hear ‘All That Matters To Me’ and I want to do it.

I wrote those songs; they’re my babies! I’ve just taken them apart and put them back together to suit the kind of thing I’m doing now with my band. Whether it’s an Elvis Costello song, or a Kinks song, or a Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson song I take it apart and put it back together as a jazz tune and everything works out fine. My tastes have always been eclectic and catholic, as they say – I’ve liked a lot of different kinds of music and it doesn’t frighten me to blur the lines and veer back and forth across genres, blues or jazz, or soul, or even pop music.

You’ve said in the past that you made a conscious decision not to be confined musically – does that suggest there may be another departure from jazz in the future?

As a matter of fact I’m putting together a polka opera record!

Polka opera! That’ll sell well… in certain markets

Yeah – it’ll be big somewhere, maybe Chicago… you know, even my jazz records have gone from here to there – my last record, which was produced by Larry Klein, was distinctly different from this latest one. He took me in a direction which, although it had plenty of jazz influences, also had elements of Americana, country, and soul – it was definitely more of what I would call a ‘strummy’ record at times – it was all songs by singer songwriters that I admire. Larry and I picked the songs by sitting down and playing records to each other. So that record was definitely different to this one, which is a return for me to kind of swinging jazz. This record has by far the most standards – old songs – on it than any of my previous jazz records. Previously I’ve done a lot of more modern songs and recast them as jazz tunes but this time around I was looking for 10 beautiful love songs an antidote to the last really depressing record! [2012’s ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’] 

I chose a few really beautiful standards. I don’t do it often but this time it kind of felt right. I wanted to go for a kind of classic jazz sound.

Maybe it was a depressing record, but I personally love the ‘Lets Go Out Tonight’ album. Great songs and great arrangements. For example on the Dylan track, ‘Things Have Changed’ your voice seemed to fit so well. You’ve sung Dylan before – have you ever thought of doing a Dylan album?

Yeah – I love that song. We still play that every night. For the most part we’ve moved on to the new record, which is what we focus on in our live shows now, but that Dylan song just works so well. It’s so much fun to play and it’s great to sing. That’s one that Larry Klein brought along. I’d always loved it and I loved the movie that it came from [Wonder Boys]. It’s such a dense Dylan song – there’s so many lyrics. It never occurred to me that I could sing it, but then I thought ‘God, this is me, both musically and lyrically – it was meant for me at that time. As you said, I’ve covered Dylan before – I do 3 or 4 Dylan tunes. Every now and then we’ll pull one out – there’s lots to choose from!

I’m grateful to that album for introducing me to David Poe – I hadn’t come across him before.

Oh, cool! Have you heard his latest album? [‘God and the Girl’]

Yes, I have it. It’s really good.

What a great record – it kills me. He and I have become very good friends. He’s a great artist – musically and artistically – the mind on that guy is really impressive. I could go on and on about David Poe – he’s a good guy!

And of course, there’s the wonderful Paul Buchanan song on there [‘Let’s Go Out Tonight’] – a very sad way to end the album, but a beautiful song

Yeah – that’s an amazing one.

So the latest album – ‘Hooray For Love’ – very much more positive and happy! Seems like you’re in a better place now.

Yeah – when I made that last record I was in the middle of my divorce – I was married for 19 years, I was in a 22 year relationship, and it was awful. Worst time of my life. And that’s what the record sounded like. It showed the pain I was in – that wasn’t the intention, although it came out because that’s how I was… This time around I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to show how I’m feeling now. I’ve fallen in love again, and I’m feeling quite happy. You know, I’m still an angsty, pain-in-the-ass artist, but my outlook is much more positive and rosy than what it was a couple of years ago.

That comes across really well on the album. You sing the standards – George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, but there’s another of your twists on a singer/songwriter track – this time by Steve Earle, ‘Valentine’s Day’ – and it fits really well.

Well that’s the thing – I’ve always thought there’s no reason why a Steve Earle song, or an Elvis Costello song, can’t fit right next to a Gershwin tune, or a Jerome Kern, or a Cole Porter tune – I believe that the great singer/songwriters of our day are the standards writers of our day – I gorge myself on singer songwriters! Have you heard of John Fulbright? Write that down! His latest album is just called ‘Songs’. It’s 10 little masterpieces. I love his voice. Its country – He comes from Oklahoma. Brilliant songs.

Your own three songs on ‘Hooray For Love’ – including the title track – work really well. In fact I think they’re the strongest on the album. You talk about the standards of the future – I think you’ve proved that with your songs on this record.

Why, thank you! Because the record was in that classic jazz style I set out to write songs that sounded like that – even the lyrics; like on ‘Hooray For Love’ – such an old fashioned phrase. It turns out that there already was a little known standard called ‘Hooray For Love’ – an old Ella Fitzgerald track. After I wrote the song and recorded it I was talking to an interviewer and I mentioned the song and he said “Oh, is that the Ella Fitzgerald song?” And I thought ‘shoot’! But luckily you can’t copyright a title of a song so I’m not in breach of any international copyright laws!

And you’ve got a fun duet with Cyrille Aimee – ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’.

Oh God, yes! – Cyrille is such a lovely singer. I met her in New York a few years ago. I was singing with a French jazz group in a Django Reinhardt festival and I was asked to do some songs with them. I was sitting backstage – no-one spoke English and I don’t speak French, and then this beautiful blue eyed girl came in the room and walked up to me and said “I love you!” and I thought “Alright!” An old fella needs to hear that every now and again – and we got talking and I looked her up when I got home. She’s such a great, well rounded singer – she has a lovely romantic voice and she can also rock it out with a band, and sing scat – very impressive. She’s got a new record out, too.

That brings me to the band – great band!

Yeah – I’m lucky!

John Sneider, in particular – I loved his mute trumpet on the ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight ‘ record, and he’s back on this one.

We’ve been playing together for a few years now. He’s co-produced a lot of my records. ‘Scrapper’ – that’s his nickname – is a great musician, great arranger and we have similar tastes in that he doesn’t just love jazz – he introduced me to David Poe. He fits my MO – he fits my plan for world domination… it’s gonna take a while, I guess, but we’ll be there!

You’re making records on a kind of relaxed schedule – one every two or three years – any plans for what follows ‘Hooray for Love’?

I’m starting to think about it, for sure – I’ve started writing. It’s always hard for me to think about the next record… even if I wanted to tell you, I don’t really know what I’m wanting to do. I’d love to make a record with an orchestra, but if I want to do that I’ll have to borrow some money from somebody! But I’d love to do that. I’ve been singing with some orchestras recently. Ten years ago I would have said “No, that’s not me – I’m a jazz singer!”, but once you start to sing with an orchestra you realise Oh my God, it’s like floating on a velvet cloud, to be in front of so many fine musicians, so that’d be nice. But I’d also like to step back into my self-appointed role as the jazz singer who finds really good singer/songwriters that no other jazz singers know about. On this record there’s really only one modern tune – the one by Steve Earle – but I have a list a mile long of great songs that no other jazz singer would cover. But who knows what’s in store. It just dawns on me at some point. I’m feeling that coming, but it hasn’t got there yet! And then I just rent some studio time and get it done.

So that’s how you work – it’s your own project?

Yes. I record for Concord records and occasionally the A and R guy will come over and say “Hey – you should do this!” And I say “Well that’ll cost this much”. Or he’ll say “You should work with such and such a producer”, and I’ll say, “Well, that’ll cost this much – per song!”, and they usually say “OK – go on and make the record you want to make.” Because I produce my records and hire the musicians and do most of the work I can do it on the cheap and make it work with the jazz label.

You know most labels aren’t spending much money these days, especially the jazz labels, so I’m left to my own devices, which suits me. I spent several years in the 90s after my first record, fighting with the record company president, and I had to basically dismantle my pop career and the success in order to get away from being told what to do – or at least them trying to tell me what to do. I’m a control freak – I know what I should sound like, and I don’t need somebody in a suit telling me what sort of record I should make.

That was the reason you made that change at the turn of the century, was it?

At that point I’d exhausted everything I had – the record took three years to make, and I didn’t see a way I could make the records I wanted to make and pay the mortgage… It’s strange but changing my focus towards jazz has enabled me to make the records I want to and in the process its changed me Making my jazz records has allowed me to make a living, plus it’s turned me into the artist I wanted to be and the record company wouldn’t let me be in the pop world. When I was making my first record I hoped I’d be walking in the footsteps of Van Morrison or John Hiatt. Instead I got painted as Michael Bolton Junior, and that’s not what I had intended. No offence to Michael Bolton – he does what he does, but I saw myself less… polished. But the record, for better or worse, sounded slicker than I’d wanted, because of the producers I’d worked with and because of the times, and the record label. When I tried to push away from that and to go to the left, less polished and more rough-around-the-edges sound, I met with great opposition from the record label. They didn’t like it! Eventually I found my way out of there – I made one more record for Columbia, which was sort of singer songwriterish – the sort of record I wanted to make. But by that time my pop fans had lost track of me and the rest of the world didn’t give a damn about me, and so about 8 people bought it. It’s called ‘Brighter Days’ and I’m proud of that record.

And you should be justifiably proud of ‘Hooray For Love’, too.

Well, thank you! I’m enjoying it, and it seems to be going down well at the concerts.

Great to talk to you, too, Curtis – all the best for 2015.

Thank you – and to you!

Curtis Stigers plays The Towngate Theatre, Basildon, on Friday 13th February
Hooray For Love’ is available now on Decca records