Boz and all that jazz

Boz And All That Jazz - Australian Interview

[By: Phil Bartsch - 22 November 2003]

GARCON, pour me a glass of that Chateau Boz. No, no, no, not the famous chart-topping 1976 Silk Degrees vintage. Give me some of that new release blend the critics are drooling over.

Silky smooth and seductive with a lingering intimacy, the velvety varietal But Beautiful, which made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart in the US, is easily savoured now but also should cellar very nicely.

It was uncorked by the softly spoken musician and budding viticulturalist on the other end of the telephone line from San Francisco. Wine and song are the passions of Boz Scaggs.

He is among a growing band of celebrity vineyard owners including Cliff Richard, Sting, Francis Ford Coppola, Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Gerard Depardieu and motor-racing legend Mario Andretti.

Chateau Boz; not its real name; is just on the other side of the hill from Coppola's estate in California's Napa Valley.

"He (Coppola) is into it in a very big way," Scaggs says. "I have only a small vineyard.

"It's been six years since we first planted and the vines are mostly mature now." They consist of four Rhone varietals commonly grown in south-central France, he explains; grenache, mourvedre, syrah and rousanne.

"I just produced my first wine, but it won't be for sale. It's only to evaluate what we have.

"I'll be producing my first commercial wines next year."

I offer; perhaps a little too eagerly; to help him "evaluate" his first 250 cases of wine but he politely tells me he has some other "experts" in mind.

Guess what all his friends are getting for Christmas this year?

Scaggs is the smooth and soulful rhythm and blues journeyman who, in the late 1970s, put some class back into the charts during the disco era. His album Silk Degrees sold six million copies worldwide and yielded the hits Lido Shuffle, What Can I Say, Harbour Lights, It's Over and the Grammy-winning Lowdown.

Along with pop diva Mariah Carey's Music Box it remains the seventh-longest chart-rating album of all time in Australia, with 18 weeks at No. 1.

Born William Royce Scaggs in Ohio in 1944, he was nicknamed "Boz" while at school in Dallas, Texas, where he met fellow musician Steve Miller with whom he performed in several blues-rock bands. The two friends went their separate ways after university.

Scaggs travelled to Europe but returned to the US in 1967 and moved to San Francisco where he joined Miller's new band.

He stayed long enough to put his signature on the first two Steve Miller Band albums, Children of the Future and Sailor, before going solo again.

Scaggs, now 59, is returning to Australia next week to embark on his first concert tour here for more than two decades, and will appear with vocal powerhouse Joan Armatrading at the Brisbane Convention Centre on December 4.

It was shortly after his 1980 tour that he walked away from the music business altogether, and spent the next eight years raising his two sons and running his San Francisco nightclub, Slims.

"I just really didn't have any music in me and I didn't feel like picking up an instrument or playing," he says.

"I think you can get so caught up in the energy of a situation, as I was. We sold a lot of records and we had a lot of what you might call success but it has its demands.

"It's just a blur of activity sometimes. I was really very glad to get away from it all."

But the music – inevitably, after more than three decades of making music – did come back and since then Scaggs has recorded five albums, the latest of which he has showcased since hitting the road in May.

Of course, it should come as no surprise that three of his seven Australian concerts are being staged at wineries in Canberra, Victoria's Yarra Valley and South Australia's Barossa Valley.

"It seems to be a good setting for this kind of music," Scaggs says.

"They're quite beautiful places and it's nice to be out on a summer's eve close to nature and doing something a little more intimate than the normal popular music scene."

By this kind of music he means his recent musical detour into the great American songbook and his latest recording, But Beautiful, Standards: Volume 1.

The album features 10 classic jazz ballads including How Long Has This Been Going On, Sophisticated Lady, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered and What's New.

Three years ago, Scaggs made his San Francisco studio available to a member of his band for a jazz session and; as he puts it; was bitten by the bug.

He is not the only one. Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, Bette Midler and Cyndi Lauper have all released albums that tap the same classic vein.

"It's something very seductive and very enticing," Scaggs says.

"You think you sound good when you're doing these songs because the melodies are so good, so beautiful and so much fun to sing that a lot of people are seduced into doing them and everybody has their own style of doing it."

Indeed, But Beautiful is a seamless combination of this classic material and Scaggs' silken vocals backed by a jazz quartet.

But, surprisingly, Scaggs says becoming a jazz singer was a lot of hard work.

"I've had a number of these songs in my personal repertoire for a long time, singing them to myself as I'm driving or having a shower," he says.

"So it feels so natural to do it. But it didn't come easily. These melodies are so simple and yet so complex.

"As a singer your role is much more undefined and you have a lot of choices as to how you're going to sing it.

"I am using a vocal range I haven't used much before and singing in tune is much more critical. There's no strings to hide behind, no horns to hide behind, no background vocals to hide behind. So you're really just hanging out there with all the little flaws and imperfections much more apparent.

"It was a very difficult and remains a very challenging thing for me to do. It's challenging to me every night but, by the same token, it's been very rewarding for me.

"It's one of the most satisfying things I've accomplished musically."

Scaggs says learning to become a jazz singer has improved his voice, forcing him to work in the lower part of his range to "gain more intimacy".

"I'm finding more ways of using it. I'm finding more ways of expressing myself," he says.

"But I couldn't have sung this material back when I was doing Silk Degrees. I didn't have the vocal skill and training I have now and I didn't have the emotional background to handle this material like I have now.

"I'm not approaching it with so much energy – at least not so high-powered energy – as I was then. I'm a little more laid-back than I was 20 years ago."

He says he now has a repertoire of between 40 and 50 songs he performs with the jazz quartet.

"It just keeps expanding. We play about half old and half new material.

"We do some songs from Silk Degrees, some from other blues and R&B kind of material and some just from here and there.

"We adapt them to the standard quartet and some songs lend themselves very nicely to it."

As the title of his latest album suggests, this is not a one-off outing as a jazz singer for Scaggs.

"There will be other volumes. I'll continue to do this. I'll do other things and pursue other interests and curiosities in music but this is here to stay with me. I love doing it.

"The next volume will try to find its own signature and I don't know what that will be yet. There's a lot going on and a lot to think about."

Meanwhile, he has one other big decision to make – to name his wine label.

"That's the last thing to be done. We're actively working on it right now. No, it's not Chateau Boz," he laughs.

No matter. If the wine is as smooth as his latest musical offering I'll have a couple of cases. Cheers.

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