Silky soul man Boz Scaggs has two outside projects: A bluegrass band (really!) and a jazz combo.
After doing his “Lido Shuffle” R&B act this summer, Scaggs is focusing on standards on his current tour. “I’m not a jazz singer; I’m not a jazz musician,” said Scaggs, who released his second consecutive jazz album, “Speak Low,” last week.
Arranger/producer Gil Goldstein “provided a setting that required jazz musicians to play. I don’t possess the super-musicality and the complexity of harmonic knowledge that would make me a jazz singer by any means.”
The new disc was hatched after Scaggs passed the famous Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City.
“It was January or February and I heard this music coming out the door that really captured my imagination,” Scaggs said recently from his San Francisco home. “I went into the club and it was as if my dreams of my new record had come true. The ensemble had seemed just right for what I was searching for.”
He chatted up some players in the band he knew and ended up in conversation with Goldstein, whose work he knew with the San Francisco Jazz Collective and saxophonist Michael Brecker.
“Speak Low” travels softly with more obscure ballads such as Bronislaw Kaper’s “Invitation” and Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” compared to 2003’s “But Beautiful” with the familiar “Sophisticated Lady” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
Finding songs - especially uncommon ones - was a challenge.
“There are a lot of beautiful songs out there but it’s very difficult to possess some of the lyrics,” Scaggs explained. “They were written in an era very often for the purpose of being for stage musicals or films and they express sort of emotional things that are very difficult to make believable in today’s world.”
Goldstein found Scaggs taking a different approach to this kind of material than he does with his R&B-tinged pop material.
“He uses the lower part of his voice for standards; for rock and pop, he often goes up in the upper register of his tenor voice,” Goldstein told the San Francisco Chronicle. “He tries to be faithful to the melody and not jazz it up so much, which is very nice to hear in this day and age, with everybody messing a little bit too much with the song that the composer wrote.”
Scaggs, 64, felt he needed permission to go in this direction. “It’s sacred ground as far as I’m concerned,” he said. About seven or eight years ago, he loaned his recording studio to the late saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus, who was working with a jazz quartet. During the project, pianist Paul Nagel encouraged Scaggs to try singing with the combo.
“There was a benefit concert I was asked to do and I played a few song with this quartet of jazz musicians,” Scaggs recalled. “And it felt right and I was sort of validated by their encouragement.”
On his current tour, Scaggs will be joined by keyboardist Goldstein, bassist Steve Rodby, drummer Richie Morales and reedmen Bob Sheppard and Paul McCandless.
Will he essay some of his radio hits with this jazz combo?
“There will be a smattering,” Scaggs said before his combo rehearsed for the tour. “We’re going to try out a few things arranged for this little ensemble. But it’s primary material from the new record and some odds and ends.”
Last year at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco, Scaggs fronted the Blue Velvet Band that included guitarist Buddy Miller, keyboardist Jon Cleary, drummer Ricky Fataar and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz. The singer-guitarist put together the group because one of his business partners runs the festival, which draws more than 700,000 people for the weekend.
“That’s another animal,” Scaggs said of the Blue Velvets. “We did Hank Williams, early Elvis, some rockabilly, Jerry Lee Lewis, some Bill Monroe, that kind of stuff. It was fun. I hope to be able to make some more music with that band.”
But first he’s going to return to what he’s best known for.
“An R&B/blues album is sort of the next stop for me,” he said. “I’d like it to be mostly original (material) but I haven’t written much. I’d like to get it done within the next year.”
Scaggs started playing the blues in high school in Texas with schoolmate Steve Miller. He followed Miller to the University of Wisconsin and then to San Francisco in 1967. After working on two albums with the Steve Miller Band, Scaggs landed a solo contract in 1969 with the help of his neighbor, Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone.
After his electric blues debut featuring Duane Allman on guitar, Scaggs went in a more R&B direction. In 1976, he reached commercial heights with “Silk Degrees,” backed by the studio musicians who would become Toto. “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” from that LP become radio staples. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he went into semi-retirement from performing, co-owning two San Francisco nightclubs. He is still involved with the clubs as well as a vineyard and his own line of wine.
With such a colorful career, who would Scaggs prefer to do a profile of him - Wenner, 62, who is still editor of Rolling Stone, or Austin Scaggs, 29, his son, who is a Rolling Stone associate editor?
“Austin,” Scaggs said. “He and I share more experience and he has a perspective and point of view that I find interesting. Not that I don’t find Jann’s perspective interesting. But Austin is more engaged in my world.”
// Notes from the Road
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