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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1690

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Curtis Stigers: Let's Go Out Tonight
by George Graham

(Concord 33098 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/27/2012)

In the music world, if you are a jazz musician, especially a singer, the general practice is to perform jazz standards, while in the pop or rock world, the predominant format is the singer-songwriter, delivering original material. There are some exceptions, such as jazz singer-songwriters Mose Allison and Dave Frishberg, and in the rock world Joe Cocker comes to mind as one whose main approach is the interpretations of the songs of others. This week we have a new recording by someone who has been on both sides of whatever divide there is, an artist who has enjoyed considerable success as a pop vocalist, worked as a singer-songwriter and also recorded jazz standards. It's Curtis Stigers, whose new CD is called Let's Go Out Tonight. It's an interesting collection of mostly obscure songs by other rock and pop songwriters, in a somewhat jazzy setting.

Curtis Stigers was born in Boise, Idaho, where he has recently returned after quite a few years in New York. His main instrument, which he started studying in high school is sax, along with clarinet. Though he considered himself a rocker, he developed an attraction for jazz, being inspired by the great jazz pianist Gene Harris, who had moved to Boise and spent the last several years there. Stigers moved to New York after graduation to get into performing rock and ended up being signed to Arista Records which released his debut, self-titled album in 1991. It turned out to be very successful, going multi-platinum. He followed that up in 1995 with Time Was. He is credited with making Nick Lowe's classic song What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding, which appeared in the soundtrack to the film The Bodyguard, a hit. While he was recording pop under his own name, he also continued to do jazz singing when he could. Over the years, he has found receptive audiences in England, and some of his albums have charted highly there.

Curtis Stigers' recorded output during the past 20 years included both pop-oriented albums and a collection of jazz standards, usually including some original songs on each release. He has in recent years been increasingly known for his jazz-influenced work. His new CD Let's Go Out Tonight is his tenth studio album and it's the first one since 2003 not to have any original material. Stigers alludes to having a hectic period in his life that did not allow much time for songwriting. The new CD was produced by Larry Klein, known as Joni Mitchell's ex-husband who produced several of her CDs. Klein is a very good choice for the job, as he understands how to create the right, vaguely jazz mood, using top musicians. The material Stigers performs is a diverse collection of songs that he and Klein settled on after a number of trips on Stigers' part between Boise and Los Angeles where Klein was based. The songs run from a Bob Dylan composition to one by soul singer Eddie Floyd, from one by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco to the title piece that appeared originally on a 1980s album from the Scottish band The Blue Nile. The closest thing to an original piece is a new song written specifically for Stigers by popular contemporary singer-songwriter David Poe. Despite the lack of compositions by Stigers, the vocalist calls this his most "autobiographical" album yet, with hints that his life has been somewhat turbulent.

The band includes mostly people with whom Stigers has not recorded previously, though jazz organist and keyboard man Larry Goldings has been part of previous Stigers albums. The rest of the band included Dean Parks on guitar, Jay Bellarose on drums, David Piltch on mostly acoustic bass, plus Patrick Warren on additional keyboards, and trumpet player John "Scrapper" Sneider who plays a prominent part on several of the tunes, often adding to the mood that reminds one of a smoky basement jazz club. Stigers himself gets out his saxophone on several tracks. The combination of Stigers' easy, often soulful delivery and the tasteful instrumental backing makes this album a good listen, even if you may be familiar with some of the songs on it. Unlike some jazz-influenced vocalists, Stigers does not go too far afield in the arrangements on the album, but each of the tunes is given enough of a twist to make it interesting and generally quite appealing.

The CD opens with a Bob Dylan composition called Things Have Changed a song that won an Oscar for its use in the film Wonder Boys. Stigers' version captures just the right mood for the lyrics. <<>>

The song that David Poe wrote for Stigers is Everyone Loves Lovers. It takes a kind of laid-back soulful approach. Poe makes an appearance on backing vocals. <<>>

A fairly obscure Memphis soul song by Eddie Floyd, Oh, How It Rained is another highlight of the album, with both Stigers' vocal treatment and the tasteful instrumental backing making for a classy performance. <<>>

Stigers and company cover a tune by Neil Finn and Crowded House, called Into Temptation, to which they definitely give a more laid back direction than one would expect for a Crowded House rock song. <<>>

Stigers included a couple of songs from more folky singer-songwriters, Steve Earle and Richard Thompson. The Steve Earle song is called Goodbye, which is about what its title would suggest. This version also takes the song in an unexpected direction. <<>>

The Richard Thompson song is Waltzing's For Dreamers. It also represents something quite musically distinctive from the composer's style. But it also works nicely, for such a sad song. <<>>

The tune by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is You Are Not Alone, which Tweedy wrote for soul and Gospel singer Mavis Staples, rather than the Wilco band. The slow version of the song also evokes a dark, smoky jazz club, even though the instrumentation is not quite what one would expect in such as setting. <<>> Stigers gets out his sax for a brief solo. <<>>

About the only track that does not work for me is one called The Bitter Earth with a twangy steel guitar, while Stigers gets dangerously close to lounge-singer territory. <<>>

The band The Blue Nile is known for their atmospheric, electronically-instrumented music. Stigers covers one of their songs, the title track Let's Go Out Tonight. Stigers and company capture the mood of the piece using mostly acoustic instrumentation. It's also a rather sad song about relationships gone awry, and doing the composition as a kind of jazz torch song works well, especially with the prominent role of trumpet man "Scrapper" Sneider. <<>>

Curtis Stigers' new CD Let's Go Out Tonight is a worthwhile recording that is neither a contemporary singer-songwriter record or one by a jazz singer doing standards. Stigers has collected an interesting set of diverse, and mostly obscure songs by others, and performs them in laid-back versions that borrow stylistic elements from both schools, the singer-songwriter and the jazz singer. Larry Klein's production adds a lot to the recording, giving the distinctive quality to the album.

But our grade for audio quality is about a C-plus. Regular listeners to this series know I frequently complain about the use of volume compression to jack up the apparent loudness in some kind of misguided volume war against other CDs. It's especially bad on this recording, with the heavy compression reaching the point of distortion frequently, and of course, that ruins the music's use of dynamics and makes the instrumentation, especially the drums, sound lifeless.

Curtis Stigers' musical output has moved in a number of directions over the years, from jazz standards to original songs. The new collection of covers of mostly obscure rock and folk-influenced compositions stands as one of the better in his 20 year recording career. It makes for engaging, durable listening.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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