SF Chronicle - But Beautiful Interview
With his new album hitting No. 1 on the jazz charts, Boz Scaggs is a changed man. "I'll use what I've learned in this process in whatever I do from now on," he says.
Fresh from a Japanese club tour with his new four-piece jazz group, Scaggs sat one recent morning on the empty balcony at Slim's, the 11th Street nightclub he owns, and talked about how his new album of standards, "But Beautiful," has changed his musical life.
"As a musician, it's music we can't get around," he says. "It's been recorded so many times by so many people. I've always had ears to vocals because that's what I do -- Sinatra, Ella, Nat King Cole, Chet Baker.
"It was fun going through the (song) books. You'd find things you'd want to get right, things that attracted you by the melody. A lot of the lyrics can be schmaltzy and difficult to sing. They were written in the vernacular of the day. Women vocalists have an easier time. They seem more comfortable with the language of emotion -- I'm wild again, beguiled again . . . It's right on the edge of something you can't do."
He drew a breath. Scaggs does not take his craft lightly. Just talking about what he does can engage intense analysis.
"You have to possess the song," he says. "You have to possess the emotion. That's the unseen challenges about doing this material. You have to be able to deliver. It's not Bob Dylan lyrics. It's a whole world and there's such a craft of construction in that world."
Before Scaggs would even attempt such a project, meticulous, earnest musician that he is, he had to approach it with caution. He spent days at Slim's rehearsing his four-song acoustic set for the 2000 Bread and Roses anniversary celebration at the War Memorial Opera House, where, along with the rearranged versions of his hits from "Silk Degrees" and his other rock albums, he scrupulously worked up a tentative but moving version of "My Funny Valentine" with pianist Paul Nagel, formerly accompanist to free-form vocalist Bobby McFerrin. He met Nagel when he went into Scaggs' South of Market studio to play on a session for ex-Doobie Brothers saxophonist Cornelius Bumpus.
"We struck up a friendship," Scaggs says. "We would have these weekly meetings and get together on my piano going through the book. It was clear that we hadn't any purpose other than just to feel it out. Both of us saw potential. We started to expand that list."
Even after Nagel moved to Rhode Island, they continued the collaboration -- "by phone and by tape," says Scaggs, "you know, let's hear this song in B-flat." Last spring, after Scaggs finished recording and touring for his last rock album "Dig," Nagel convened a jazz quartet and they taped a rehearsal to see how it sounded, Scaggs digging into songs written by Ellington, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart.
"We did 18 or 20 songs in an afternoon -- you know jazz guys," says Scaggs, who has literally spent years recording a single album. "We lived with it for a few weeks, and it started to take some form in our minds. We decided to go for it."
The album was recorded in four days last September.
After more than 30 years of Scaggs recording for major labels, "But Beautiful" was released on his own label, Gray Cat Records, distributed by Jimmy Buffett's Mailboat Records. Scaggs decided not to sign again with Virgin Records.
"They don't know what to do with an artist of my generation," Scaggs says. "Their tendency is to go with a crapshoot with the kids who are going for the big numbers." His last album, "Dig," didn't fare all that well in the marketplace. For starters, it was released on Sept. 11, 2001.
"I really loved the record," he says. "It was one of the best experiences I ever had recording. It got around. But I was disappointed it didn't do better and that was one of the factors that led me not to renew with Virgin."
He says his live shows "are taking all different form now." With the new quartet able to swing from New Orleans barrelhouse to rockabilly to the jazz standards, Scaggs is traveling light as he hits various European festivals and clubs this summer, able to adjust the repertoire and program for each occasion. In Japan, he played the material from the new album but interspersed the ballads with up-tempo Latin numbers and rearranged, jazzy versions of numbers from his old songbook, including "Lowdown" and "Harbor Lights." His plans with the new band run through the end of the year and, then, "we'll see what happens," he said.
But the new album carries a subtitle: "Standards: Volume One." Scaggs intends to continue the series. "I don't know how this is going to happen," he said, "but when this is finished, I'll go through a lot of songs. I can't wait to get into the Brazilian songbook.
"I'm sure I will continue to write," he says. "But whatever I do will revolve around this."