Mr. "Lowdown" takes his second, remarkably intelligent, shot at a set of classic American standards. Much better than Rod Stewart, if that means anything to you.
For the record, I'm against pop stars doing late-career albums of jazz standards. After the first one or two (Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson), it became a banal and obvious move, as one-time rebels grabbed for older listeners -- and respectability -- by feigning sudden reverence for Gershwin and Arlen. The trend has barely abated in recent years (Alison Moyet, Rod Stewart). Let the record reflect: thumbs down on Iggy Pop doing a Sinatra cover album.
So, here is the second standards album by pop/R&B vocalist Boz Scaggs. Late career? Check. Reverence for Gershwin? Check.
But pre-judging Scaggs is a dangerous move. His career is dotted with interesting zigs and zags, even if he is best known for the disco-hip Silk Degrees from 1976 ("Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle"). Plus, and let's just be honest about this from the start, Scaggs has a weird-ass voice. It warbles and croaks and on just about every song he sounds like Kermit the Frog for at least a few bars. From the get-go, he's been an unlikely pop star.
Could it be he has always been a jazz singer at heart? Well, not exactly. But this is far from being cringe-inducing music. Indeed, it has been crafted with intelligence and a notion that there is virgin territory still to be plowed in recording great old songs.
In 2003, Scaggs recorded But Beautiful with a jazz quartet. This was not the typical lushly orchestrated cheese (Rod Stewart, I am talking to your roostery old head), and Scaggs put across a nice late-night feeling that was free of pretension. It was moody stuff -- slinky, acoustic, modern. He didn't wear a fedora or stand in front of an old-fashioned microphone on the cover.
Now Scaggs has recorded a follow-up standards disc, Speak Low, that is more ambitious than his first. This time he is armed with more complex arrangements featuring a lush but atypical band: gauzy woodwinds, strings, and rhythm section. Haunting bass clarinets dodge about. Vibes shimmer and play searching blues licks. Hand percussion percolates. Boz keens, with the occasional Kermit-the-Frogian passage still audible.
The good news is that this is far from typical pop-singer-goes-jazz work. With no brassy flourishes or Nelson Riddle snappiness to fall back on, Scaggs turns to jazz pianist Gil Goldstein for arrangements of crystalline immediacy, with soloists like Bob Sheppard (saxophone) and Scott Colley (bass). Little on Speak Low, therefore, is "standard" even though the songs are well-worn standards. The title track uses a slinky tango groove that is played, however, with pastel gentleness. Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" starts with the rarely heard verse over only acoustic bass, then moves into bluesy barroom sway that invites the strings. "Skylark" is awash in Fender Rhodes and hip tenor sax swing. "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" is simply a revelation: both a lament and a lullaby painted in flutes and harp, clarinet and piano, violin and cello.
Scaggs's voice acquits itself well in most places. He is relaxed and easy throughout, never oversinging or trying to bring some misplaced R&B affectation to songs that, history has proven, don't need any bullshit emotionalism. Even though Scaggs grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, he long ago took on the sound of California: easy-going to a fault, cool-like-cucumber, singer-songwritery if a bit Kermitty.
And so the vocal approach here is sort of like the late-election season Obama approach: First, do no harm. Scaggs sings with an accurate coolness. He is not trying to win your vote -- he just doesn't want to lose it.
The weakness is right there: This collection winds up like incredibly tasteful and hip gift-wrapping that conceals... maybe a couple of stainless steel salt-and-pepper shakers. Gil Goldstein's arrangement are the equivalent of a robin's egg Tiffany box, but the vocal performance in the middle of it all is merely okay. The "Sad Young Men" arrangement is so sensational that you long to hear the words put across with intensity. Understated intensity, yes, but still intensity. What Scaggs provides is merely good, merely understated. On the tunes that require less, such as the waltzy "Sensa Fine", the result is forgettable. On the great songs, there is a vague hollowness in the air.
My favorite track here, for Scaggs's work, is his natural match with Jobim's "Dindi". The coolness in Scaggs's voice lets him float pleasurably through this bossa and makes you wonder why someone -- Goldstein, maybe? -- didn't suggest more Brazilian material. Goldstein plays some accordion here, and the combination of lushness and simplicity balances. Here, the elements are well-aligned and Scaggs seems less hollow, but it is the exception rather than the rule on Speak Low.
Old Boz fans, are you digging this kind of fairly hip jazz? Jazz fans, is there any chance that you are going to reach out for standards done thoughtfully by a former pop start? The market baffles, but music continues. Maybe Rod Stewart will hear this record and will go back to singing the blues. Everything happens for reason, right?