Curtis Stigers wears his heart on his record sleeve. The versatile American singer who, two years ago, released his darkest album to date – a collection, as he put it, “of sad songs or songs about sex” – has gone to the other extreme with his new CD Hooray for Love, an all-out, old-fashioned celebration of romance. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking “Ooh, Curtis must be happy” as soon as I saw the the title of the new album – so is the Stigers who comes to Edinburgh indeed as happy and loved-up as the record suggests?
“Well, yeah,” say Stigers who, for all his drawl speaks ten to the dozen. “That was the whole idea. I set out to make an album that mirrored where I am as a person as well as the last record mirrored where I was when I made it. And that record was obviously f***ing depressed. And so I felt like it was time both for me and my fans for the antidote so I went looking for ten beautiful love songs. I really wanted to make an album of love songs; an album that was just unabashedly, unapologetically romantic.
Whereas Let’s Go Out, the previous CD, featured contemporary singer-songwriter material, this new album comprises swinging, jazz takes of classics from the Great American Songbook alongside some original songs which sound as if they might also have been written in the same era. “I threw out a lot of the rules I had made for myself, like ‘Don’t record songs that have been recorded a million times’ and ‘Never record a song that Sinatra is known for’.”
Stigers’s joyful experiences singing with the John Wilson Orchestra in the landmark 2010 MGM prom and subsequent movie-themed concerts inspired the inclusion of the a couple of the songs – Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight (“the sweetest and, I think, one of the smartest love songs ever written”) and the Gershwins’ Love is Here To Stay. Performed in a catchy, loose, simple arrangement reminiscent of small-group, 1950s jazz recordings featuring the likes of Harry “Sweets” Edison and Ben Webster, it’s the opening track, and it sets the intimate, laid-back mood of the album. “Ah,” agrees Stigers, “that era is definitely what we were going for, and one of the two or three albums that we really looked at and I kept at the back of my mind was the After Midnight sessions with Nat ‘King’ Cole – that has Sweets on it. It was Nat basically coming back to the small group, swinging sort of thing that he had stepped away from to become a pop star.”
“It seemed like the thing to do – to take a step back towards happy and towards a little more, I guess, of a mainstream jazz approach. As well as the King Cole album, I was thinking about those early Doris Day records before she got too pop, too cute and smarmy; those great pop records from the 1950s where it was fantastic jazz musicians playing great songs with a great singer, and there were solos but they weren’t long solos. That was the other thing: I really wanted to pay attention to the song first, and whilst there are some solos, I really stood on my musicians; I was grinding my heel into them as they were playing, saying: ‘No – simpler!’, ‘No – closer to the melody!’, ‘Let the song do the work!’ ”
It’s not only the mood and material of Hooray for Love which are reminiscent of those earlier albums; the sound evokes that era as well. Stigers explains: “When I mixed the record I really tried to not go for modern hi fidelity but go for more of an old-fashioned fidelity. There’s a difference between the way jazz records sounded in the 1950s to the way they sound now. I didn’t want it to sound retro; I just wanted it to sound cosier and more intimate. Jazz records these days you can hear the drums so well. You can hear every texture of the drums… I don’t really give-a-damn what the drums sound like – I want them to keep the beat; that’s what drums do. And I could be thrown in jazz guy prison for saying that but the truth is that’s not the issue with an album with a singer and great songs. The issue is the great songs and the voicings – and everything else is there to support that. So that’s what we were really going for.”
The mood really couldn’t be more of a contrast to the last record or the repertoire we’ve heard in Stigers concerts in recent years: he’s gone from the cynical to the soppy. He’s come out of a painful divorce and found a new love, and he can’t hide his delight. Even the title Hooray for Love came from the sign-off on an email from a friend congratulating him on his new romance. Thankfully, his performance at Ronnie Scott’s earlier this year showed he hasn’t completely sold out on his fellow cynics – he still sang Dylan’s Things Have Changed and other songs from the last album.
Chuckling, Stigers points out: “I’m still cynical. The fact that I’m a romantic is the reason that my cynicsm is so thick. Let me explain that. I think because I open my heart – as the song says ‘I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast’. And that’s who I am. I believe in love, I believe in romance. And when you get your heart stomped on, as an open-hearted romantic, it’s pretty easy to take on a defensive edge. But underneath it all, I love love songs and I love love. So this was my chance to show the non-cynical side.”
And just to highlight the fact that the sad cynic is still there, he has concluded the album with You Don’t Know What Love Is, the bleak, Chet Baker-associated ballad which has been a bit of a showstopper at Stigers gigs in recent years. “I just couldn’t help myself! It’s a love song but it’s a dark song. It’s a song about love that one way or another can’t be fulfilled. It’s a sad song. It also seemed like that sort of cautionary tale at the end, you know? Love, love, love, love, love – but don’t forget what might happen!”
* Curtis Stigers plays the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on October 9. Hooray for Love (Concord Records) is out now. For tour dates visit www.curtisstigers.com
First published in The Herald, Friday October 3, 2014