Daily Gazette

Boz Scaggs not done with jazz, but he's returning to bluesier material

On the road ... with his hits

[By Brian McElhiney - June 20, 2009]

“I’ll do ‘Low Down’ every night. I will do — what else every night? I don’t know,” he said by phone from his home in San Francisco, a little less than a week before heading back out on the road. “Well, I’ll do ‘Low Down’ for sure. I’ll do ‘Lido Shuffle’ every night, some ‘Look What You’ve Done to Me.’ ”

At 65, Scaggs has had plenty of hits throughout his five-decade career from which to pick and choose. Most know the singer and guitarist from his extensive solo career, which has touched upon everything from rock to blues to R&B.

But in 2003, a different Scaggs emerged with the release of “But Beautiful,” an album of jazz standards recorded with a sparse quartet. His recorded work this decade has continued in the jazz standards realm with last year’s “Speak Low,” his first studio album in five years. The album features work out of the Great American Songbook, with titles by Duke Ellington, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers, and John Mercer.

He toured a number of smaller venues and jazz clubs late last year in support of that album, but is switching gears for his coming tour, which heads to The Egg’s Hart Theatre in Albany on Monday night . It’s on these kinds of tours, the “greatest hits” tours, that he feels most at home.

“I’m more comfortable in a bluesier, R&B vein, in the songs that I’ve written,” he said. “It’s developed very much around my own style, whereas when I do the other stuff, the standards material, I’m working with some really amazing, specialized jazz musicians. My voice is more a part of the ensemble, more an instrument, less supported by the arrangements I’ve recorded with in the more mainstream vein.”

And it now looks as if he is ready to again focus on his first love, R&B, in the studio. He’s writing songs for his next album, which he hopes to complete by the end of the year, and which will pick up where the gritty blues of 1997’s “Come on Home” left off.

“Right now I’m just working on my own,” he said. “Once the songs take a little more shape, I’ll know where I need to go for help if I need producers, co-writers or whatever.”

For Scaggs, working with standards has been a learning process, in more ways than one. The material was challenging for him, which is what drew him to it in the first place.

“It’s a real discipline to have to sit down and practice several hours every day,” he said. “It opens up your sense of harmonics and tone, and it makes you grow. That’s pretty good for somebody my age.”

Expanded vocabulary:

Working with standards has expanded his musical vocabulary not just vocally, but instrumentally, as well.

“I learn to play more guitar with the standards stuff,” he said. “I really have to go to school, and that’s great for somebody like me — I’ve been around a long time. So to be able to discover new techniques, new chords and voices, that’s really stimulating and fun.”

Born in Ohio, Scaggs — real name William Royce Scaggs — grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, meeting guitarist Steve Miller at a prep school in Dallas. His first foray into music came as vocalist for Miller’s group The Marksmen in 1959. After a failed attempt at a solo career with the 1965 solo album “Boz,” Scaggs again played with Miller on The Steve Miller Band’s first two albums, “Children of the Future” and “Sailor,” before relaunching his solo career with a self-titled 1969 album.

His solo breakthrough into mainstream pop radio came with 1976’s “Silk Degrees,” from which “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” both became hits. He continued strong throughout the rest of the ’70s before taking a break from music after 1980’s “Middle Man” to operate San Francisco nightclub Slim’s. After returning in 1988 with “Other Roads,” he spent time touring with Donald Fagen’s Rock and Soul Revue in the early ’90s.

He released a steady stream of new music in the 1990s and early 2000s, culminating with the 2001 album “Dig.” The album introduced some more modern R&B textures into his songwriting, even blending in some hip-hop elements in the beats. The guitar and vocal work, however, is pure Scaggs, and to this day he considers it his favorite album.

“I’ve been playing more and more material from that record; I do more now than I have ever done,” he said. “I just love that material — to me, it’s the most wholly satisfying record I’ve ever done.  It’s fresh to me. It feels like the way I feel musically now more than anything else.”

For his most recent album, “Speak Low,” he recorded in a much quicker fashion than he normally does for his original material. The entire album was recorded in four days at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch with New York City bandleader Gil Goldstein and a small cast of ensemble musicians, including percussion, saxophone, bass and vibraphone. However, nearly two years went into selecting and honing the material.

Different approaches:

“The actual recording, once the charts are written, doesn’t take that long to go in and do it,” Scaggs said. “That’s the basic difference between these styles of doing things. Jazz musicians talk about the music a lot first, and then play it one time. In the other vein, it takes a while to write the song, and once you’re in the studio with players you try different approaches, because you’re taking original material for the most part and developing it, arranging it on the spot, trying it in different ways, working for different feels.”

Now that Scaggs is applying the lessons he’s learned from singing jazz to his R&B and blues work, one might be tempted to think he’s finished with that portion of his career. But jazz is something he would like to continue pursuing.

“There’s just a balance,” he said. “Really, one feeds the other in some ways.”

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