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]
Ill do Low Down every night. I will do what else every night? I dont 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, Ill do Low Down for sure. Ill do Lido Shuffle every night, some Look What Youve 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 years 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 Eggs Hart Theatre in Albany on Monday night . Its on these kinds of tours, the greatest hits tours, that he feels most at home.
Im more comfortable in a bluesier, R&B vein, in the songs that Ive written, he said. Its developed very much around my own style, whereas when I do the other stuff, the standards material, Im 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 Ive 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. Hes 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 1997s Come on Home left off.
Right now Im just working on my own, he said. Once the songs take a little more shape, Ill 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.
Its 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. Thats pretty good for somebody my age.
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 thats great for somebody like me Ive been around a long time. So to be able to discover new techniques, new chords and voices, thats 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 Millers 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 Bands 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 1976s 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 1980s Middle Man to operate San Francisco nightclub Slims. After returning in 1988 with Other Roads, he spent time touring with Donald Fagens 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.
Ive 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, its the most wholly satisfying record Ive ever done. Its 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.
The actual recording, once the charts are written, doesnt take that long to go in and do it, Scaggs said. Thats 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 youre in the studio with players you try different approaches, because youre 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 hes learned from singing jazz to his R&B and blues work, one might be tempted to think hes finished with that portion of his career. But jazz is something he would like to continue pursuing.
Theres just a balance, he said. Really, one feeds the other in some ways.