Curtis Stigers
United States
Music group
After a brief detour as an international pop star, Curtis Stigers is back to his first love: jazz. With two critically acclaimed releases on the Concord Jazz label and a third LP (released September 9th, 2003) Curtis has fulfilled the promise of his youth and established himself as a world-class vocalist and song interpreter.

Stigers set off in 1987 for New York City. He began a regular engagement at Wilson's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which led to a recording contract with Arista Records. His self-titled debut, released in 1991, sold nearly 2 million copies and spawned several hit singles, including the self-penned top 10 "I Wonder Why." In support of the album, Stigers appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, and toured the world with artists including Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Rod Stewart. His sophomore release, 1995's 'Time Was,' further explored pop and soul, and the singer also scored a major success in 1992 with the Nick Lowe song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," included on the soundtrack to The Bodyguard - one of the best selling recordings in history. Coupled with three of his own releases, Stigers was propelled into a rarefied atmosphere of platinum record sales and large stadium performances with Elton John, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and others. "It was great fun, but in the process I got pegged as something I wasn't," he says now. "It wasn't what I planned." Freed from his recording contract, he challenged himself with a variety of new projects, including recordings with Al Green, Julia Fordham, Jules Shear, Suzzy Roche, Carole King, and Jackson Browne before turning his attention back to jazz. "I realized jazz was what I needed to be doing," he says simply. "I wanted to return to my roots."

As a teenager, Stigers immersed himself in music, first as a clarinetist, then a drummer, and finally as saxophonist and vocalist. He had already begun to play jazz when the effervescent, blues-driven jazz pianist Gene Harris moved to Boise. Harris took Stigers under his wing and exerted a powerful influence as both mentor and friend. After two decades playing with the Three Sounds, Stanley Turrentine, Nat Adderly and others, Harris held forth on a regular basis at a local hotel until bassist Ray Brown coaxed him out of retirement in the mid-80s. Harris' hiatus from the road proved fateful for the young Stigers.

"Gene let me sit in when I was 15 to 21 and was so warm and embracing. He'd say, 'you sound great, keep practicing, see you next Tuesday'. He was always positive and never took on a schoolteacher vibe. I was a musician, and he was a musician, hanging out, even though we were obviously at different levels," remembers Stigers. "Most of all, he taught me that music is always about what you love and how you put yourself into it. He was a genuine professional music role model, and a jazz legend to boot, and you don't often get that growing up in a small town."

The relationship between Harris and Stigers came full-circle in the mid-90s when the late pianist invited him to sing on two recordings, the gospel CD In His Hands and Down Home Blues with Brother Jack McDuff. "It was an incredible thrill," Stigers recalls. "I'd come full circle, recording with my mentor. It was my first step toward realizing I needed to get back to jazz." Prior to making his own jazz recordings, Stigers also performed with Chris Mihn Doky, Toots Thielemans, Jimmy Scott, and Randy Brecker, and in a sax choir at President Bill Clinton's 1993 Inauguration with Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, Grover Washington and Gerry Mulligan. "It was amazing, riding around in that bus for three days with those guys. They were my heroes. Then, a couple years later, Gerry died, and I realized other heroes were going too. It had a profound effect," he says. "Life is short, and you should make the music you really want to make."

His first work for Concord, the 2001 release, Baby Plays Around (CCD-4944), found the singer covering jazz standards with aplomb, earning raves from critics: "a jazz singer in the best sense," said the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mojo agreed, "Stigers manages to be both as authoritative as a veteran and as fresh as an ingenue."

On Stigers' second release for Concord Records, Secret Heart (CCD-2124), his rich and expressive voice is the centerpiece of a masterful and diverse mix of originals and selections from acclaimed songwriters such as Steve Earle, Randy Newman, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. On "Hometown Blues," Stigers succeeds in the challenge of restyling a Steve Earle song into a spirited and swinging rave up. The album title track, 'Secret Heart' is a poignant reinterpretation of a ballad from Ron Sexsmith, the critically acclaimed Canadian singer/songwriter.

For his third Concord release, You Inspire Me (CCD-2185), Curtis Stigers masterfully transforms jewels from the worlds of pop, folk and country music into contenders for new jazz standards, with a decidedly modern twist. Transcending boundaries, the singer/saxophonist/songwriter and his ensemble deliver seductive renditions of the works from disparate composers-Billy Joel, Randy Newman, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and others-leaving listeners to ponder why these tunes aren't already among the vast library of 'standards' that make-up the Great American Songbook. Yet there is little that is 'standard' about Stigers or his visceral approach to music. He is among only a few male jazz vocalists with the soulful sexiness, the in-the-moment immediacy, required to drive a tune from playful to urgent, or even from pop to jazz, in a heartbeat.

"First and foremost, it's about the songs," says Stigers. "Great songs by modern songwriters who have inspired me. This album is a little less straight-ahead than my previous releases, more experimental. More twisted." Stigers admits that until this recording he had been a bit of a purist when it came to the instrumentation and approach he used, with very defining walls between styles. "For You Inspire Me," he says, "I realized creating jazz meant combining all the influences that shaped me musically. I grew up on rock, folk, blues, country, as well as jazz music. They're all here on this disc."

When not touring, Stigers often retreats to the mountains of his native state, Idaho, where radio stations heavily feature classic songs. One day, "I Feel Fine" by Lennon and McCartney caught his attention and before long he was singing it in the shower. "I've always loved that lick," he says of the tune's distinctive intro. "It stayed in my head. Most people who cover Beatles songs do ballads like 'Michelle' or 'Yesterday,' but I heard this one swinging. It's got a sense of humor about it, as do many songs on this CD, yet it's sly, with a pretty dark harmonic approach. Music, my favorite music, can take a humorous turn at a moment's notice," he adds.

Fittingly, You Inspire Me closes with Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," which Stigers' endows with irony. "It's such a perfect song, we take it for granted. It's got a happy, warm, positive lyric," he says, "what better tune to do as dark and twisted? I've done two straight-ahead albums, and it was time to bend things again," he laughs. "My career has always been about striving to find another way to do things, another story to tell. I just can't stand still."
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