Boz Scaggs Interview - SF Chronicle

Boz Scaggs hit the books to take a jazz turn

By Jesse Hamlin

Chronicle Staff Writer

October 26, 2008

[This article appeared on page E - 1 of the S.F. Chronicle]

Boz Scaggs

Boz Scaggs was strolling by the Blue Note in New York one rainy winter night when the sound he'd been hearing in his head - an airy mix of strings, vibes, reeds and horns - came wafting from the Greenwich Village club.

"It was magic," says Scaggs, a far-reaching musician known for his taste and integrity. He wanted to sing amid those orchestral colors on the record he was mulling as a follow-up to 2003's "But Beautiful" - his first foray into the harmonically rich world of standards - but was searching for the right arranger to shape the ethereal sound he was after. "I thought, 'Ah, this is it.' "

It turned out be a nonet led by Gil Goldstein, the arranger and pianist who'd apprenticed with master colorist Gil Evans. Scaggs had loved the lean, artful charts Goldstein wrote for the San Francisco Jazz Collective and saxophonist Michael Brecker. Meeting that night, he and the arranger began the collaboration that brought forth "Speak Low," a lovely set of classics and lesser-known gems that comes out Tuesday on Decca.

Scaggs sings these old songs with natural grace and feeling, phrasing through floating webs of sound woven with bass flutes, harp, marimba, saxophone, piano, percussion, bass clarinet and string quartet.

He will serve up some of that repertoire - which ranges from standards such as "Skylark" to the bluesy "Save Your Love for Me" and the lilting Jobim bossa nova "Dindi" - at the Napa Valley Opera House on Tuesday night, the first stop on a national tour. But he'll mix it up with the music for which he's best known: rhythm and blues, his first love, and some of his stylish 1970s pop radio hits like "Lowdown" and "We're All Alone," freshly arranged by Goldstein.

The pianist, who doubles on accordion, will lead a band featuring multi-reedmen Bob Sheppard and Paul McCandless, bassist Steve Rodby, drummer Richie Morales and the female singer Monet, from Scaggs' hits band.

Because most of the songs on the new CD are ballads, "we gotta give the show a little juice. It's gotta have some energy," Scaggs says. He's sitting in his South of Market studio, wearing a white dress shirt, black trousers and a very trim goatee. That's where he and Goldstein chose and shaped the material. They played and sang duets at the Steinway grand with a spontaneous feeling they tried to bring to the record.

"What we wanted to come out of this was the real, pure joy of just sitting here going over these songs, just feeling our way in the dark, as it were, and trying to find where we met musically," says Scaggs, 64, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man who takes his time making records and choosing his words.

"There was a stillness that was alive. The music barely moved, but it worked. We wanted the music to come out of that stillness, out of silence, and we didn't want to break that spell. And that's the feeling that I still get when I listen to it."

Ears for music
The Texas-bred musician made his name in the 1960s as a rocking San Francisco bluesman and hit big in the '70s with elegant pop records such as "Silk Degrees." But he has ears for all kinds of music.

On his studio shelves, boxed sets of Jimmy Reed and Miles Davis share space with Ry Cooder, Kronos Quartet and Segovia CDs. Scaggs always dug jazz, but it wasn't until he hooked up with pianist Paul Nagle that he began developing that part of his musical personality. Nagle turned him on to tunes, jammed with him and set the musical table for "But Beautiful," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts.

"I'm not a jazz singer, I'm not a jazz musician," Scaggs says. "I don't have that training or their sensibility, but I was able to enter that world, I think, reasonably effectively. I mean, they played with me. And we did good. We turned some people on."

Singing Jimmy Reed right is no less demanding than doing justice to Rodgers and Hart. But the world of standards, with its complex harmonic language, is more open to interpretation, Scaggs says. And with new possibilities came new challenges.

"The voice becomes more of an instrument, and a much more individual style has to come out of it. You find yourself going into various cliches - landing on a Mel Torme here, a Ray Charles there, a Nat Cole or Sinatra there. You find yourself sort of copying the devices they use. And the job is discard as many of those devices as you can to find your own footing. My devices are rhythmic, tonal and textural. I stick pretty close to the melody. The melodies of these songs are very, very beautiful to me. And with the right arranger, they're just gorgeous."

Scaggs, whose next record will be in more of an R&B vein, recently did a 57-city tour with his hits band. Singing that music came more easily than ever because of what he had to learn to master the standards.

Mastering the standards
"It helped me as a vocalist immensely," he says. "Nothing has so much influenced my voice and expression. This is much more disciplined. It requires a lot more steadiness of tone. It's a trick to get from one expression here to this expression there. The melodies are much more complex. It's an acrobatic stunt sometimes to get from here to there. It's like climbin' a rock face. You have to figure out what you're gonna grab onto next. I've had to learn technique and develop a stronger voice."

Goldstein was intrigued by the way Scaggs sang this music.

"When he sings standards, it's a different-sounding voice, different from the Boz I knew from his records," Goldstein says, on the phone from his Brooklyn home. "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. These are very pure vocal performances. 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 has been practicing like mad to play these tunes on guitar.

"I'm really gonna be lost if I have to stand onstage and just sing," he says. "So I'm spending hours and hours daily, listening to this record and learning how to play these songs. Up until a year ago, I couldn't play a B-flat minor 7 with a flat 5th. But I can now."

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