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On 'This Life,' Curtis Stigers revisits his hits with a jazz quintet

vocalist Curtis Stigers
Ben Wolf
courtesy of the artist
Vocalist and saxophonist Curtis Stigers.

KNKX's Robin Lloyd speaks with singer and saxophonist Curtis Stigers about his new album, return to Seattle's Jazz Alley, performances from his kitchen and what his dogs think about show business.

Listen to the full interview above or read excerpts below.

Let’s talk about that new album called “This Life.”

I decided to take a look back at my 30 years in the record business. I haven't done that, as an artist, previous to this. I've tended to just plow forward regardless of what publicists and record companies told me to do, which has been my joy, and to their chagrin and probably my accountant's chagrin as well, because it hasn't necessarily allowed me to make the zillions of dollars I might have made had I listened to some of those people.

But I've always wanted to just continue to grow and change and learn about different types of music. This time around, I had 30 years in the record business to look back on and a lot of songs that sound very different now when I play them.

I had a few hits on my first album. “I Wonder Why,” “You're All That Matters To Me,” "Never Saw a Miracle.” They were sort of pop soul anthems, and now they're jazz quintet kind of intimate little love songs. And so we play them differently. I wanted to show that on this new album.

There are also other songs that I've had success with, the “Sons of Anarchy” theme song, which I co-wrote and sang. We do that very differently than the original recording. And also “(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which I recorded originally for “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, which sold 45 million copies, thanks to Whitney Houston and her massive hits, I just rode on her coattails. But anyway, this record is a look back, but at the same time, it's a look at who I am now and where I'm going, because it's definitely played by a jazz quintet. We play it very acoustically and not in that poppy old way that I used to play these songs.

Curtis Stigers - You're All That Matters To Me

So you have taken some time during the pandemic to sort of re-evaluate things.

Oh, indeed, yeah. Not making a living for a year and a half, which was terrifying and something I had to get used to. I mean, I have had a job since I was about 12 years old, you know, since I had my paper route, I've always sort of had an income. And to not have that, it was it was a bit terrifying. Luckily, I'm married to a lovely woman who has a job, so the bottom didn’t fall out completely.

Not getting on airplanes for a year and a half: not so bad at all. I do well over 100,000 miles a year. I'm just about to go 2 million miles on United. You don't realize how much how much of a toll that takes on your body until you don't do it for a while. It was dreamy to sit home with my dogs in my kitchen and play my guitar.

My previous record, called “Gentleman” didn't work all that well. Because I tour to sell records, I tour to promote my records and vice versa, I make records so I have songs to play on tour. I couldn't do that, so I had to figure out new ways to promote. I started making videos. I learned how to use my iPhone in a lot more interesting ways than I did before. I learned how to edit videos on my laptop.

And I started making these kind of fun videos with my dogs. My dogs were my co-stars, because they were the only ones that were around. I made a bunch of videos for the record. And also just because it felt good, I created a few little documentaries about songs I liked. So I went on to just doing a livestream show, every Wednesday afternoon, 1:00 here in Idaho or noontime in Seattle, I put on a little show in my kitchen called “Songs from My Kitchen,” and I play my guitar and I sing songs that I've played forever. I sing songs that I've never played before. I sing songs that I haven't played since my first record. It's really been not only a lot of fun, but it's also been a growing process.

I've had to learn how to play guitar a lot better than I did before because there was no one here to accompany me, no great pianist or guitarist to back me. I've always played guitar, but I've gotten better.

And my dogs have really taken to show business.

Ep. 43 Curtis Stigers - Songs From My Kitchen

So I have I found that even though the pandemic was horrifying and sad and crazy and world shattering, it also was an opportunity for me to stop and have a look at who I am and where I'm going and what I wanted to do with my life. It allowed me to teach this old dog some new tricks. I'm actually a pretty good video editor now. I can make things for social media when I want to promote shows, like the show at Jazz Alley coming up soon. It's a lot of fun. It's like, oh, I am creative.

Tell me about your connections with pianist Gene Harris and saxophonist Michael Brecker.

Well, they were both hugely influential on me as a musician. I first fell in love with Michael Brecker’s saxophone playing when I was a kid, listening to pop records, listening to Paul Simon records, and then listening to so many jazz records that he played on, and Steely Dan records and things like that. So I grew up idolizing him, and I then met him in 1993.

I was asked to play with this 13 or 14-member saxophone choir during the week of Bill Clinton's first inaugural. Quincy Jones put this big TV show together, and one of the things was a saxophone choir because Bill played saxophone. And so it was me with Grover Washington Jr. and Gerry Mulligan and David Sanborn and Michael Brecker and all these amazing people.

I'm a singer who owns a saxophone. I mean, I really don't consider myself a jazz saxophonist. I'm a good rhythm and blues saxophone player. If you want me to play a sort of bluesy solo, I can play a passable solo. But I'm not a jazz player. I'm not one of those guys. But because I had a hit record at the time, I got to be involved in that. So I became friends with a lot of those guys, particularly Michael. And we stayed in touch, you know, for the rest of his life.

There was an important moment when I realized I was done making pop records and I wanted to make jazz records. I called Michael and I said, “Hey, you know, I'm nervous about this. I have this opportunity to sign with Concord Jazz and just walk away from this whole pop world, which I'm sick of. And they're sick of me, too.” And Michael said, “Oh, yeah, man, that's exactly what you should do. The water's warm. Jump in.” He really convinced me. That was really important to me.

When your brother happens to be the best saxophonist on the planet

And Gene Harris, he was very important to me. I grew up in Boise, Idaho. That's where Gene moved to in the late 1970s. He retired there. He didn't stay retired, of course, he went back out with Ray Brown and then had the Philip Morris Super Band. He had a second career that was more impressive than the first!

I grew up going to Gene Harris's jam sessions on Tuesday nights at the Idanha Hotel at the corner of 10th and Main. There's a song on the new record called “Swingin’ Down at 10th and Main,” which is about those jam sessions, and about growing up, learning how to play jazz, learning how to swing, learning how to not be a jazz snob and to play all kinds of music into the jazz.

Gene was such an important part of my life. The most important thing he did for me was one night after one of the jam sessions where I had I had gotten up and I had sung. I was about 19 years old and I got up and I sang a song. He came over and said, “You're a good saxophone player, Curtis, I've listened to you all these years and, you know, you're getting better and better and that's great. But the singing, that's the thing. I really think that's your thing.” From that moment, I was a singer who played saxophone. I was no longer a sax player who was dabbling in singing from that moment. If Gene Harris tells you you're a singer, you know, you've got to go there. And that's what I wanted, anyway, I really I wanted to step up and do that.

They're both such important figures, Gene Harris and Michael Brecker, in my life, both as a musician and just as a guy. I just loved them so much. They meant the world to me. “Swinging Down at 10th And Main” was a song that I recorded back in 2001, I wrote it for Gene Harris. I wrote it about those jam sessions. We do it differently now live. So I recorded it again for the new album.

Gene Harris was the most swinging piano player, the most swinging musician I ever heard.

The Three Sounds feat. Gene Harris | Groovin' Hard: Live at the Penthouse (1964-1968)

You'll be at Jazz Alley, May 24 and 25. Who are you bringing with you?

I'm bringing my whole band, Matthew Fries on piano. Cliff Schmitt will be playing bass. Paul Wells is playing drums. And John “Scrapper” Sneider is playing trumpet.

We are really excited to be coming back to Jazz Alley. I think it's one of the greatest venues, not just jazz venues, but one of the greatest venues in the world. It's a perfect size. It's intimate, it's small enough that people are right there with you. But it's big enough, you can get a lot of people in there.

It was sort of the Shangri-La, it was the Mecca for me as a kid, because when I was growing up in Boise, Idaho, it was the place to go. I remember getting in a VW van with a few of my buddies and driving all the way to Seattle to catch a show up there. It's such a great place. So I'm really pleased to be getting back there. And I love Seattle, too. It was the place you went to get away from the one-horse town that used to be Boise, Idaho.

So come on out and go down memory lane with me and listen to some of my older tunes in a new, jazzy way.

More information about Curtis Stigers' shows at Jazz Alley here.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.