ejazznews - Boz Scaggs Interview

Boz Scaggs hits top of jazz charts bearing standards

October 24, 2003

Blame it on Linda Ronstadt.

When she turned away from rock two decades ago to record two albums of old songs, she opened the floodgates of nostalgia, inspiring a series of young standards bearers that started with Harry Connick Jr. and flowed through to the current popularity of Diana Krall, Michael Buble and Peter Cincotti. Boz Scaggs gets on the recent nostalgia bandwagon with an album of pop classics, "But Beautiful".

Now, an older generation of pop-rockers is staking claim to the material. Rod Stewart released an album of standards last year, and Boz Scaggs -- who hit his peak of popularity in the late '70s with hits like Lido Shuffle -- has trumped his contemporaries with an intimate collection of classic ballads, But Beautiful, that has not only reached the top of the jazz charts but has also earned him the respect of even the most elitist of jazz fans.

Scaggs skyrocketed to stardom in 1976 with Silk Degrees, an R&B-flavored album full of hits that helped define radio playlists (and Scaggs' set lists) for years to come. But he's put all that behind him to tour with a jazz quartet.

"There were a number of events that led me to this material," Scaggs said from his home in the San Francisco Bay area. "Just being a singer who enjoys a number of different styles, it was inevitable that, sooner or later, I would take on this collection of songs. I don't know that it would have been right sooner."

There's always been a touch of the world-weary in Scaggs' voice, and it proves a fine fit for such songs as You Don't Know What Love Is. But it's the spare jazz quartet arrangements and Scaggs' expressive voice that make listening to the album such a disarmingly intimate experience.

"The music is very beautiful in and of itself," Scaggs said in a voice that still betrays a hint of drawl from his Texas upbringing. "But I think the tendency with a lot of people is to try to embellish it. It can become even more attractive when you add strings and other instruments. But, to me, the real beauty of it is in the simplest context."

For example, during the opening of Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Lady, Scaggs' voice is accompanied only by a quiet piano playing a stripped-down arrangement, a kind of courageous high-wire act that could easily expose a vocalist's shortcomings. But Scaggs pulls it off impressively.

"To me, a piano and a vocalist really can say it all," Scaggs said. "I love the piano. Jazz piano is probably my favorite form of music. It's the one that I collect the most and enjoy the most. I think that it helps to have drums, bass and another solo instrument to fill it out, but I don't see the need to go any further than that to get a hold of the songs in the way I wish to."

Also intriguing is that Scaggs doesn't seem to copy the style of any other singer, instead seeking to put his own stamp on the work of the Gershwins, Rodgers & Hart, Sammy Cahn and others. Perhaps that's because he doesn't really think of the "Great American Songbook" as a man's turf.

"There are only a handful of men whom I've listened to that I've really enjoyed," he said. "Some of the work of Johnny Hartman, Nat Cole, Chet Baker ... But it's the women who I think are really able to handle the emotions of this music. The songs were written in an era of romance, many of them for Broadway shows or films. It's not easy for a male vocalist to get a handle on the language of the lyrics, because they're kind of schmaltzy."

Scaggs may think "the songs are best served by the great women stylists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee or Sarah Vaughan," but it's no surprise that the man who wrote and sang such emotional ballads as We're All Alone and Look What You've Done to Me can get into the lovesick mood of Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

How does he feel about setting aside the songwriting and approaching songs strictly as an interpreter?

"There are parts of it that are easier, because you're not having to sweat out the writing of the song, which has always been a very challenging process for me. On the other hand, you're sort of hanging out there in a small-group setting, and there are a lot of choices to make. But you rarely get to be such an integral part of the music as you do in this kind of an ensemble."

Scaggs says he'll get back to songwriting, but, for now, he's finding life as a jazz singer very rewarding.

"This has been such a profound experience for me that it will definitely have an effect on whatever I do from here on. I'll explore other musical areas, but I'll continue to make these kinds of records, just as a matter of satisfying my own curiosity. It's something that I have immense pleasure in doing. And there are just so many songs ... "

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