Boz Finds A New Voice

Published: Thursday, April 23, 2009

It’s become one of the best formulas for kick-starting the third act of the aging pop musician: The standards album — songs you know and love, revived by someone you’ve known and loved in another genre.

Rod Stewart has to be the most successful recent example. Michael Bolton quickly comes to mind. Throw in everyone from Elvis and Rita Coolidge to Cyndi Lauper, Carly Simon and Aaron Neville, and the track record is proven.

Likewise, Boz Scaggs. The easygoing ’70s pop singer who flooded radio with sing-alongs like “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown” and “Look What You’ve Done To Me” before taking a lengthy hiatus in the ’80s and making a comeback in the ’90s, has found new life in jazz standards.

His first collection, “But Beautiful,” debuted at No. 1 on the jazz charts in 2003. Now on his second album, “Speak Low,” he hits the ground running, teaming up with pop-jazz arranger Gil Goldstein for classics by Johnny Mercer, Kurt Weill, Hoagy Carmichael, Rodgers and Hart and Duke Ellington.

Soft-spoken and occasionally taking long pauses between sentences, Scaggs at 64 is careful to point out, “I’m not a jazz musician.” Later, he adds, “I don’t even know who listens to my records.”

Making the short trip from his spread among the vines and olive orchards on Mount Veeder in Napa County, he drops by to play the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday. He took a break from “packing the shaving kit” and prepping for the road again to talk about jazz, wine and the nightclubs he co-owns in San Francisco:

Q: You were walking by the Blue Note jazz club in New York one night and heard a sound you were looking for?

A: Well, I was back East meeting with an arranger that I was looking to collaborate with on a new record and it wasn’t going real well. I wasn’t finding what I was looking for. I had a few days off in New York and I happened to walk by a club and it struck a note with me as to something that I was looking for that I wasn’t finding with my arranged meeting.

Q: What is it in jazz that’s opened things up for you and allowed you to explore new tones in your voice and new areas?

A: In my first album, I was working with a quartet and the voice in that role is more of an instrument than it is in the other genres that I come from, let’s say in pop music or blues or rhythm and blues. There’s just a lot of open space. In those other genres, it’s sort of like the other instruments in the song itself are in a supporting role to the lead singer. Whereas in this other context, with these jazz musicians — I’m not a jazz musician but they are — the role in that is different. We’re all supporting the music in a more equal role.

Q: Did it seem daunting at the time because as you say, you’re not a jazz musician?

A: Yeah, it did seem daunting. The kind of stuff that I had come up with before, which was mostly blues and kind of rock, is pretty much within a context that I’m familiar with, the chord changes are pretty basic and they don’t stray too far from basic patterns.

This kind of music is really beyond any of that. Primarily from the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, it explores a whole new range of tone and harmonies and stuff. It’s not blues kinds of changes. The melodies are more complex and require a little more range.

Q: It sounds so natural. This kind of laidback tone you have fits perfectly with this music and yet it’s not something you’d ever done before.

A: If you’ve been singing as long as I have, you get to know, to some degree, what you can do and what you cannot do. You develop a certain way of getting from one note to the next, one line to the next, and you can translate that into whatever you do.

Q: When you were starting to take on some of these standards, were you at all distracted by those who came before?

A: When you think of a particular vocalist — Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra — somebody who’s done those songs and kind of defined it, sometimes you have to try to escape that style. Although with most of this stuff, we tried to find different rhythms and time signatures. We tried to create new ground with each song.

Q: How do you settle on what to play on any given night with such a wealth of material in different genres?

A: Well, it depends on the tour. Like the show at the Wells Fargo Center, I think I have a pretty good idea of what people expect to hear, so that will be 75 percent of what I do — things that are heard on the radio and the hits and the more accessible stuff.

Q: Was there a time in the ’80s when you thought you might not return to performing, playing, writing music again?

A: I never thought about it in terms of whether I would return to it or not. I just knew I was not into it at that time. When it did start coming back to me or when I really started to miss it, I just started following the same lines I’d followed before. I called up some musicians and I started getting some ideas and fleshing them out the way I always have.

But when I started up again, I made a record (“Other Roads”) that in retrospect was really a weird record. You tend to think you can jump back in the river where you got out, but it’s not always that way.

Q: How has this business changed for you?

A: People are getting used to going online and finding a lot of what they’re looking for. It’s not terribly unlike when I was a teenager. I used to scour the radio dial for hours, whenever I had a chance, and I could just turn the dial at a given time of day and just keep searching and searching for something on the radio and I’d find it and I’d listen to it and maybe I’d go out and buy a record. That’s the way most of the people in my generation found what they were looking for. The same thing’s happening now on the internet. It’s just a different business model. That’s the way the game is played and that’s the way you do it.

Q: How’s the wine biz treating you?

A: Very slowly. It’s just an enterprise that my wife and I have undertaken. We’re at the very bottom of the commercial scale with about 300 cases a year to sell. We’ve been making wine since 2000 and we didn’t start selling it until about two years ago. Our first red wines have been introduced and we’re really just getting into it. We were giving most of it to friends and donating here and there, but it stacks up.

Q: I hope the Great American Music Hall and Slim’s (San Francisco clubs he co-owns) figure out this issue of serving food and alcohol. (The Alcohol Beverage Control board has been cracking down on the ratio of food to alcohol served at all-ages music venues.)

A: Yeah, it would be fairly tragic if that strikes us, because there would be a lot of shows that would not be able to be presented anymore. In some ways, I think we’re doing a great service to the community.

You can reach staff writer John Beck at 521-5300 or

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