Globe Newspaper - But Beautiful Interview
Boz Scaggs is back on the charts, with surprisingly 'Beautiful' renditions of jazz standards.
The right combination of persistence and openness can work wonders. More than 20 years after his presence began to dwindle from the airwaves, blues-rock and R&B singer Boz Scaggs has continued to tour, compose, and put out albums. Nothing he did in the '80s or '90s received anywhere near the acclaim of his big releases from the '70s, records such as "Slow Dancer" and "Silk Degrees". Still he made music.
But someone had better get the files on Boz, because his entry in the rock encyclopedias requires a revision. Scaggs's latest album, "But Beautiful," is a collection of gorgeously arranged standards recorded with a jazz quartet. And it is one of the finest projects he's ever given us. The jazz world has been immediately taken with the disc: It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Now Scaggs is touring with the quartet in support of the record, and he must be expecting a crowd: They are about to do three nights at the Paradise Rock Club, Sunday through Tuesday.
How the devil did this come about? Scaggs relates the story on the phone from a hotel room in New York: Three or four years ago, a pianist named Paul Nagel was recording an album with a quartet in Scaggs's studio in San Francisco, and the two became friendly. Soon Nagel and Scaggs began playing together. Around the same time, Scaggs was invited to play a few songs for a benefit concert, and the organizers wanted an acoustic band. The group Scaggs assembled - Nagel, saxophonist Eric Crystal, bassist John Shifflett, and drummer Jason Lewis - rearranged some tunes from Scaggs's catalog and threw in "My Funny Valentine." They liked their sound so much that they eventually went into the studio in the spring of 2002 to make a demo recording of standards such as "Never Let Me Go," "Sophisticated Lady," "Easy Living," and "What's New?"
"I was encouraged by what I heard," says Scaggs, who's 59. "I used that demo to sort of learn those songs. I could play it back and sing into them. It was not an easy process for me. It was a whole new world as a singer. It was very challenging. With time, I was able to get hold of the songs."
They returned to the studio in September 2002 to cut the tracks. "We were very careful with the sound," Scaggs says. "We wanted to make a very high-quality sound. We took our time. It took three days [to record] the songs on the album. And then I took some more time with the vocals, I'll be quite honest with you. I really worked to get them right."
Choosing the right set of tunes was a challenge, he says, because many standards are tough to navigate -- and others can sound tired or dated.
"One of the biggest parts of the process is finding material that has lyrics that you can get around," he says. "They're difficult songs. And it's a difficult period. I think women handle this material a lot better because of the emotional quality. There's a dated quality to this material, because they're show tunes from the '30s and '40s, and you can't get around that.
"It became apparent that we just wanted to stay in the ballad mode. We tried other stuff, but it didn't seem to belong. We tried to find variations on the ballad. We tried to mix it up. We might try a Latin thing here, or `How Long Has This Been Going On?' lends itself to more of a bluesy feel. We tried to mix it up with songs that for the most part were pretty familiar but not cliche -- although some of these songs have been done by hundreds of performers."
Scaggs says he had long been taken with the old songbooks but until recently had been too intimidated to try them himself. It's a much different experience, he says, than singing your own material.
"This is a whole different approach," he says. "I've become an instrumentalist in this setting. The words are all there; the melody is all there. What I have to do is maneuver around the quartet as a solo instrument. It's much more challenging. There is no embellishment with the quartet, and you're really hanging out there with much less support than a pop song or a rhythm-and-blues song."
Therein another pitfall: "One of the obvious challenges is that people tend to stylize in a way that instantly reminds you of the way that somebody else might have treated it: Billie Holiday did it like this, or Frank Sinatra did it like this, or Nat Cole did it like this, or Ray Charles did it like this. Once you realize you have to take this on yourself, it becomes a whole new means of expression. It's been quite a journey for me into this realm as a singer. Once you find a footing, it's the most liberating and free style, and quite addictive.
"I never really thought of myself as performing this [material], because it's sort of sacred ground to me. I'm critical of other people. I can't help but be critical as a musician and as a stylist myself. I don't listen with the same openness that other people might. Quite frankly, a lot of people haven't handled this material well. It's real easy to sound trite or sound like you don't belong there. To work in the jazz idiom, to me, it took a lot of convincing to feel like I really belong here."
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.