The Citizen's Voice
Sept. 11 at Kirby Center
Published: September 4, 2009
Boz Scaggs is perhaps best known for his 1974 album, Silk Degrees. The album, his most successful to date, spawned five hit singles, most noteworthy of which is "Lowdown," his biggest hit with which he scored a Grammy award for Best R&B song.
To date, Silk Degrees is Scaggs' only opus and he's since become a bit more known for his lengthy career and the musicians he's played with rather than his own work. Artists that this musical workhorse has worked with include southern guitar-god Duane Allman, The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and psychedelic-stalwart Steve Miller.
In 1970, Scaggs began a long-term association with Columbia Records. His first three efforts for the label - Moments, Boz Scaggs and Band and My Time - are loaded with durable, insightful original songs. By contrast, Slow Dancer, issued in 1974, emphasized understated textures and sleek, uptown grooves - a sound Scaggs would develop further on his commercial breakthrough Silk Degrees. That album spawned several hit singles ("Lowdown," "Lido Shuffle," "Georgia," "We're All Alone" and "It's Over"), reached number two on the Billboard album chart, and eventually sold more than four million copies. It also brought Scaggs a Grammy award for "Lowdown," which he co-wrote with David Paich, and was voted Best R&B song.
For Silk Degrees, Scaggs relied on a small group of Los Angeles session musicians including keyboardist Paich and drummer Jeff Porcaro. Shortly after that recording, those musicians formed the enormously successful '70s rock band Toto. Scaggs went on to release Middle Man in 1980 and it became his third consecutive platinum-selling title. Later that year, the singer essentially withdrew from the music business with very little fanfare.
The multi-dimensional Canton, Ohio, native, whose 1976 album Silk Degrees was one of the landmark pop titles of the decade, began working on 2008's Speak Low several years ago. He'd settled on most of the material, and had developed a rough notion of the sound in his head.
"I had a few distinct elements I wanted to hear with my voice," Scaggs told The Citizens' Voice in a recent interview. "I knew I wanted reeds, bass flutes and clarinets. I wanted to try to sing with strings, but I didn't want it to sound like generic strings."
He needed an accomplice, an arranger who could bring those textures to life. As part of his search, he flew from his home in the Bay Area to New York to meet with some prospective collaborators. At first he was discouraged - he remembers wondering whether he'd ever realize the sound he'd imagined. And then one night, as he and his son were walking through the Village, he experienced what he describes as a "remarkable coincidence."
"It was raining, cold out," Scaggs related. "We walked by the Blue Note and heard music coming out of the club. It was vibes, string trio, a couple of horns - this was the sound I'd been hearing in my head, exactly. Turned out to be the Gil Goldstein Septet. After the set we started talking, and it was just a really nice meeting. When we got together around a piano, that was it. We knew," he emphasized.
Scaggs wasn't on the scene for the hot-and-heavy jazz years, but the singer and musician has been associated with some of the most talented players of the rock era. Scaggs began his solo recording career in 1969, with an eponymous album for Atlantic Records that features members of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section. That album has achieved a kind of legendary cult status for the extended blues foray "Loan Me A Dime," which features an incendiary guitar solo by the late Duane Allman.
In subsequent sessions, Scaggs and Goldstein concocted a sly, almost subliminal approach that emphasizes openness - torch singing as it was practiced during the crooner heyday of the 1950s, with each phrase guided by sensitivity and understatement. Some tunes showcase Scaggs fronting an agile rhythm section, while others, including the title track and a sultry "Invitation," are fleshed out ever so gently, with clarinets in the basement and delicate splashes of color from the strings.
Scaggs says he knew, from the beginning, that those fleeting textures were essential to the enterprise: "So many people in the last decade have gone back to the standards, the list is as long as my arm. Lots of them with big orchestras, too.
It seemed pointless to even go there unless we were going to do something to make these songs our own" Scaggs stated. "We had to find an emotional connection. It's a testament to the songs themselves that they keep getting redone, but that makes it tricky, too. We played around a lot with different tempos and feels, pushed the songs in different directions," Scaggs added.
That sense of invention - coy, often oblique invention rather than radical reconstruction - defines Speak Low. One example is Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," which is most often rendered in a bouncy medium-tempo swing pulse. After trying it that way, Scaggs and his crew slowed the tempo down dramatically, to a captivating crawl. The possibilities, Scaggs says, suddenly multiplied.
"When we tried it like that, we were surprised at how the slow ballad tempo gave the lyrics more emotional dimension. It's hard to sing that way - I call it 'jumping from post to post,' because there's a lot of area between the beats. But it really works," Scaggs observed.
And though Scaggs took care to avoid copying or emulating the classic interpretations of these songs, in a few cases he found it nearly impossible. His "I Wish I Knew" draws on the memorable rendition on John Coltrane's Ballads album.
"That's where I learned the tempo, and the phrasing. He legitimized that song for me." And then there's "She Was Too Good To Me," which was recorded by jazz vocalist and trumpeter Chet Baker. "It's very hard to escape Chet on that," Scaggs acknowledges. "It will be said that I leaned on Chet, and I openly admit it. When he goes into that pure, unwavering place, that's some of the most beautiful singing on the planet," Scaggs said.
The singer added that the airy, inviting feeling of his latest album is partly due to the atmosphere of the studio. The album was recorded at Skywalker Sound, a state-of-the-art studio that's part of filmmaker George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch complex. The room is massive, a soundstage big enough to fit an orchestra. Yet Speak Low sounds like it was made in someone's cozy living room.
"The sense of intimacy you can get there is quite remarkable," Scaggs says. "You sort of naturally think that you can get closer to the music in a smaller room, but that's not always true. At Skywalker, the vastness brought us all together. When you enter you go through these huge heavy doors, and the enormous space and enormous quiet really gives you a sense of intimacy. The quiets in that room are much quieter, and all of the dynamics are really vivid. It's a great room to sing in," he added.
Listening to the aptly titled Speak Low, it's obvious that Scaggs and his accompanists enjoyed the super quiet quiets, the vivid contrasts. They seem to sense that these are ideal conditions for making subtle music. You can tell they're listening intently, savoring the little ripples, ready to take all kinds of chances and at the same time moving gingerly, so as not to break the spell.
So, dust off your Silk Degrees album, and perhaps your notion of Boz Scaggs too, and get to the F.M. Kirby Center for The Performing Arts on Sept. 11, and re-live 1974 all over again. This is a legendary performer that's likely to turn in an aptly similar performance.