Friday, November 9, 2007

Curtis Stigers' "Real Emotional": CD review

In which Jazz Police/JazzINK writer Andrea Canter and I talk about a new CD by a mutual favorite. Originally posted on both JazzINK and Jazz Police.

Released in 2007, Real Emotional is Stigers's 8th CD, his 5th for Concord, and his 3rd collaboration with keyboardist/arranger Larry Goldings as producer/co-producer.

Personnel: Curtis Stigers, vocals, saxophone; Larry Goldings, keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel, all arrangements; Matthew Fries, piano; John Pizzarelli, guitar; John Sneider, trumpet; Phil Palombi, bass; Keith Hall, drums.

PLE: I like their arrangement of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (Bob Dylan). It’s so convincing you think this is how the song should have been arranged in the first place—as a jazz song. Goldings’s accordion may not belong in there. But I like the way Curtis belts out the words.

ASC: This is one of the jazziest arrangements on this CD, and I rather like the accordion here.

PLE: The accordion is certainly becoming more popular in jazz—you can hardly escape it. Gary Versace seems to be the first-call squeezebox player these days.

ASC: Gary’s accordion is on lots of recordings lately. Matt Wilson used him on his last CD, Scenic Route, and I really enjoyed the way Gary injected that sound into the mix. Plus it is really fun to see an accordion player on stage with the usual bass, drums and brass.

PLE: Gary was up there with Regina Carter at Birdland in June…. James Carter used accordion onChasin’ the Gypsy [Atlantic, 2000], and more recently so did Maria Schneider on Sky Blue [Artists Share, 2007]. What’s next; the World Accordion Quartet?

ASC: Curtis’s next “I Only Want to Be With You” was written by Curtis and Jake Stigers, his younger brother. This feels more like a pop ballad, as do a few other tracks.

PLE: A return to pop, which he left behind after he clashed with Clive Davis in the 1990s.

ASC: But maybe he belongs here. He does appeal to what I always liked about the folk rock of the 70s—good storytelling, a bit of rasp in the voice, just a bit of folky haze.

PLE: But he swings, too, which folk rockers generally don’t do.

ASC: His sax here has that smooth jazz sound—that’s not true of the whole album.

PLE: It’s a bit too close to smooth jazz for my taste. I want to make it clear here that I really like Curtis Stigers, I always go to see him when he comes to town, I like him as a person, and I like his earlier albums a lot, but this one is not doing it for me—as a whole. At least, not this song.

ASC: On Real Emotional, as on his other recordings, his phrasing has the unpredictability of the best jazz singers. Diana Krall is a master of that unpredictable phrasing, even if her material sometimes seems pedestrian.

PLE: It feels like Curtis’s new CD does not hang together, and maybe that’s a byproduct of an era when people are downloading individual tracks and not listening to whole albums.

ASC: It would be a tragedy if that happens to jazz—a one-track mind, so to speak, rather than some of the engaging concepts that have been put together in live as well as recorded performance.

PLE: Now let’s talk about “I Don’t Want to Talk About It Now,” Curtis’s cover of Emmylou Harris’s song. This is a dark song, with dark lyrics. On Real Emotional, it has a weirdly funky little bounce. It’s over-arranged. There’s too much going on given the bleakness of the original.

ASC: The Hammond B-3 [Goldings] gives it the bounce and country blues pulse. If it was strictly an instrumental, you wouldn’t be distracted by the collision with the lyrics. Curtis’s previous CD, I Think It’s Going To Rain Today [2005] seemed to work better generally in terms of the arrangements, although there is that overblown instrumental appendage to “Crazy” that maybe hinted at things to come on Real Emotional. Yet I also have to admit that “I Don’t Want to Talk About It Now” grows on me each time I hear it. Maybe in my brain I am rearranging the layers of sound?

PLE: I went back and listened more carefully to I Think It’s Going to Rain Today and came away feeling as if it, too, is over-arranged. Curtis brings a hipster feel to much of what he sings, and for me, that doesn’t fit with this particular song.

ASC: Willie Nelson can pull off hip and country.

PLE: What about Curtis’s “San Diego Serenade?” I am always happy when someone else sings a Tom Waits song because you can actually understand the lyrics.

ASC: Phil Palombi’s bowed base provides a nice intro. I love this—and it’s in that folk/ pop mode. Maybe Real Emotional is really a folk/pop album sung by a jazz singer.

PLE: This starts out as a beautiful song, and then it takes a disastrous turn with Keith Hall’s snare drum; it sounds like a march. I’m not blaming Keith. It’s the arrangement!

ASC: Sometimes they seem to throw in jazz elements that are not congruous with the rest of the arrangement, and vice versa—like Curtis is trying out his various personas, and sometimes they collide.

PLE: “A Woman Just Like You” [Stigers and Goldings] is a loose, lazy Margaritaville song. You can imagine Curtis stepping back and snapping his fingers.

ASC: Mostly I like this one, but I could do without the la-la-las.

PLE: It sounds like Keith is using flat hands on the drums, a sound I like. And I also like the la-la-las, even if you don’t. This is the first track on this CD I really enjoy.

ASC: The trumpet solo [John Snider] is sweet, too.

PLE: To me, “An American Tune” [Paul Simon] is the emotional high point of the CD.

ASC: He preserves the Paul Simon feel very well. Curtis has a Willie Nelson sound but a Paul Simon artistry. I like Larry’s piano here.

PLE: I love how he is interpreting this, it’s a moving song and Curtis really gets into it. But he is not varying much from Paul Simon’s original, thank goodness. The simplicity of the arrangement is in Curtis’s favor here. It’s a good match for his voice, and he can be a very expressive singer. You feel his pain. Nice.

ASC: And it’s one of the few tracks with a duet arrangement. I’d like to see a recording of just duets from these two. Let the focus be on the lyric and the emotion—Real Emotional.

PLE: Dan Zanes’s “Night Owl” is hipster Curtis again. This could be a Madeleine Peyroux song. It would be great to hear Curtis and Madeleine together someday.

ASC: This has a Frank Sinatra hipness to it. A fun tune with great lyrics.

PLE: It’s sassy and sly and Curtis does sassy really well. But get the B-3 out of there! We don’t need it. Goldings has put a layer of airy, reedy chords under many things on this album and it’s superfluous.

ASC: I like the sax intro to Mose Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation.” It complements Curtis’s voice well—that bit of grit, but I just heard Mose sing it himself [in St. Paul at the Artists’ Quarter]. Mose is 80 and it’s his song. He gives it a unique quality; no one can match him.

PLE: Mose is so deliciously dry and ironic. Of course Mose doesn’t sing the actual notes—he kind of talks around them—and that’s another reason why it works.

ASC: Instrumentally, they do some bluesy dark things here; it swings. And really, if I had not heard Mose do it, I would like this better. Curtis is more convincing as a balladeer than as a bluesman.

PLE: “I Need You” [Stigers and Goldings] breaks my heart. This one fits the title of the CD.

ASC: Again, it’s just the two of them and a simple arrangement—it is the formula that works so well. And I prefer Larry Goldings on piano rather than B-3.

PLE: This song is very convincing. I would find this powerfully moving performed live.

ASC: I really like Larry’s bass lines. I forgot it was just piano and was thinking Phil Palombi was on this track. Curtis and Larry make a good team!

PLE: If you eliminated some of the layers on the other tracks, this would be a stronger album.

ASC: I first listened to this CD in the car, and the road noise eliminated some of the layers. On some tracks, I prefer it in the car stereo! When Curtis is singing on “Stardust,” Goldings drops the B-3 out in favor of Matt Fries’ piano, which I think was a wise choice.

PLE: I do love the B-3—Lonnie Smith, Joey D, Jimmy Smith. But with voice, it’s like a competition. There’s too much going on. Bottom line, I like Curtis best with his classic trio [Fries, Palombi, and Hall], which is how we see him live. Our reaction to this CD is probably colored by his live performances with the trio.

ASC: This is a bold recording, if not perfect. The arrangements often challenge you to find the musical thread. Sometimes that thread eludes me. And sometimes I find it if I keep listening. Maybe that is really the mark of a successful, if imperfect, recording? I had the opportunity to interview Curtis a few weeks ago. He said, “As I get older as a ‘jazz singer’ in quotes, I worry less about proving something to the jazz world and much more about telling a story.” Real Emotional is filled with stories. But I can’t wait to see/hear him tell these stories live, with his trio.

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