Denver Post - Boz Scaggs Interview

Boz Scaggs Hones Jazz Chops

[By Mark Harden, Denver Post Assistant Arts Editor - Denver Post 2003]

Boz Scaggs has discovered jazz just in time for Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

The veteran soul/blues/rock singer has made the pop world a better place over the past 35 years with such tunes as "We Were Always Sweethearts," "Dinah Flo" and "Some Change." And he scored a major disco-era hit with the 1976 album "Silk Degrees," featuring "Lowdown," "It's Over" and "Lido Shuffle."

Now, as he prepares to headline at this week's four-day Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival, meet Boz Scaggs the jazz crooner. His latest release, "But Beautiful," featuring such standards as Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and the Gershwins' "How Long Has This Been Going On," will come as a pleasant surprise even to longtime admirers of one of pop's most beguiling voices.

Displaying his characteristic sense of class and taste, Scaggs has avoided the bombast of some previous "pop star covering standards" projects (Rod Stewart's recent "It Had to Be You" comes to mind). Instead, Scaggs - backed by a supple jazz combo - employs low-key yet swinging arrangements and a spare vocal style that shows off how skillful a singer he really is.

And now the pop star is a jazz star: His album, released May 6, debuted at No.1 on Billboard's jazz chart. Rolling Stone's David Wild judged it "the best R&B he has recorded since ... 'Silk Degrees'." "But Beautiful," indeed.

Expect to hear the new record's highlights Saturday when Scaggs performs at Aspen's Rio Grande Park, this year's in-town site for the JAS June Festival. (The event's traditional Snowmass Village site, which has been undergoing improvements, will be ready in time for the JAS Labor Day Festival.)

"I'll mix it up some," Scaggs, 59, says in a phone call from his adopted hometown, San Francisco. "I'm bringing the ensemble that I recorded 'But Beautiful' with, so that will definitely be featured. ... I'll (also) mix some bluesy things in and a couple of things the quartet has been working on, some of the things from my back pages."
JAS opens Thursday night with the Chico O'Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, followed by Tony Bennett on Friday, Scaggs and India.Arie on Saturday and Joe Cocker with Shemekia Copeland on Sunday. Audiences will sit under a 3,000-capacity tent at Rio Grande Park.

"But Beautiful," Scaggs says, sprouted from a benefit performance with an acoustic combo three years ago.

"In addition to a few of my own songs, we did 'My Funny Valentine,' he says in a soft twang, a remnant of his Texas childhood. "And I struck up a friendship with the piano player/arranger (Paul Nagel). We just sat down together and started exploring some songs, some of which he suggested, a few I suggested. We had a list of 50 or 60 songs and we just started playing, finding my key and trying some different feels.

"We started getting together informally. It was done in the pure spirit of exploring this material and playing with it." After a few years, Scaggs says, "it became apparent that we could probably take another step and get together with a quartet. ... (So we) scheduled a recording session for last September and did it."
Also featured on the album with Scaggs and Nagel are saxman Eric Crystal, drummer Jason Lewis and bassist John Shifflett.

Scaggs - a proficient heart melter on such past tunes as "Slow Dancer," "Harbor Lights" and "We're All Alone" - seldom has sounded so passionate as on "But Beautiful."
"It's much more challenging than anything I've done, purely as a vocalist," he says. "You're another instrument among just a few. You're really hanging out there and much more exposed in this genre than in most others. (In) your basic blues setting, you're out there, too. But this is different; it's a whole new experience."

The Canton, Ohio, native (born William Royce Scaggs) roamed Europe as a young musician before landing in the band of longtime friend Steve Miller in the late 1960s, playing on two of his albums before going solo. His 1969 release, "Boz Scaggs," featured the FM-radio standard "Loan Me a Dime," with slide guitar by a young Duane Allman. A string of well-received 1970s albums for Columbia led to "Silk Degrees," which reached No.2 on the Billboard chart, and stardom.

Through the 1980s, Scaggs spent much of his time away from performing, running his San Francisco nightclub, Slim's. He moved to the Virgin label in the mid-1990s, releasing some of the strongest albums of his career, including 1994's bluesy "Some Change" and 2001's eclectic "Dig," which sandwiched a set of (mostly) blues and soul covers, 1997's "Come on Home."

After decades on the big Columbia and Virgin labels, "But Beautiful" is Scaggs' first "indie" release on his own Gray Cat imprint, distributed by Jimmy Buffett's Mailboat Records, making Scaggs the latest in a parade of established pop stars (from Buffett and Prince to the Eagles and Natalie Merchant) to eliminate the record-label middlemen and take control of his own product.

Scaggs finds it encouraging that younger musicians and listeners are opening their ears to sophisticated, jazz-based arrangements, as demonstrated by the recent success of Norah Jones and Peter Cincotti.

"There's been a real lack of, let's say, harmonic-based music for the last decade," Scaggs notes. "I mean, (pop) music has really been pretty basic stuff, two or three chords. ... When you get into the area of these so-called standards, there's a lot more lyrical and harmonic information going on. There's something that's been missing for a while. And there's a lot of emotion built into these songs, and that, too, has been (lacking) the last decade or so. Maybe it's just time for this to come around again. "The bottom line is, this music is just very well-built. It lends itself to all sorts of situations and generations."

After JAS, Scaggs will showcase the new album at a string of jazz-festival dates in Europe through July, then plans to tour the States and Australia in support of a live album due out in August. A Denver date is a possibility, he says.

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