There aren’t many performers who can pack out venues in the same city three times in one year, especially in these cash-strapped times. But Curtis Stigers, whose popularity in Edinburgh is about to hit the legendary level, is one of them. The craggy-voiced singer, guitarist and saxophonist who made his name as a pop star 20 years ago but now purveys his own distinctive “hybrid” style, is returning to the capital next week to take up a short residency at the intimate and decadent-feeling Dirty Martini club at Le Monde, where he thrilled audiences for five nights during the Jazz Festival.
Those five “Up Close and Personal” performances, which were duo concerts with his guitarist James Scholfield, followed a one-nighter with his full band at the Queen’s Hall in March – and similar gigs at the previous two jazz festivals. So it’s fairly safe to conclude that Edinburgh and Mr Stigers have a thing going on – and that rather than fizzling out, it seems to be gaining momentum, especially now they have found a room which provides the ideal setting for close musical encounters.
“I guess I do have a bit of a love affair with this city,” says the eloquent 47-year-old. “Physically, it’s stunning. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world and one that people often overlook. And then there’s the audience. The audiences here are always very warm, and they seem to get my sense of humour – and the kind of music that I’m doing now.”
Of course, Stigers is unique in the music scene as not only does he attract jazz fans and those who have discovered his work during the 13 years since he embarked on this jazz-based, but wide-ranging, phase of his career, but he has also retained a core following from his days as a chart-topping pop singer and pin-up. “There are still people that are along for the ride from back in those days. Some of them I lost because I started experimenting and didn’t stay with the one thing, but a lot of them have stayed with me and were open to following me down some different paths – the jazz especially, and then the hybrids that I’ve been trying to create.”
These hybrids are a natural reflection of Stigers’s own eclectic musical tastes. “My record collection spans the Sex Pistols to Charlie Parker, and everything in between. I like music. I like honest, emotional music. I like great songs. I’ve come to realise that it’s not the jazz singing that attracts me to jazz singers; it’s the way they tell a story.
“Somebody like Sarah Vaughan, even though she sang a lot of notes and was a show-off, it still always came down to the emotion of the song. Even when she was swooping and diving and making all these acrobatic moves as a singer, you were still entranced and enthralled by the story she was telling, by the lyric.”
Stigers’s primary influences as a singer may be Chet Baker, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat “King” Cole but he also grew up loving Aretha Franklin and Elton John – and he now appreciates that the songs that Baker, Sinatra and co were singing were effectively pop songs that had been turned into jazz. “So what I’ve been tying to do is take songs from my generation, from different places – from country music, from rock ‘n’ roll, from folk music, from blues, from rhythm and blues, from soul – and then sort of reconstruct them in a somewhat jazz format.”
With his new album, Let’s Go Out Tonight, which he introduced to Edinburgh in March, Stigers has taken the idea a step further: by not just remoulding songs from diverse genres into a jazz format, but by “allowing the folk style, the pop style – musically speaking – to come into my stuff. The songs on this album were chosen strictly on the grounds of whether they were beautiful.” And they reflect the fact that his interest today lies more with singer-songwriters – among those whose work features on the album are Steve Earle,
Richard Thompson and The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan (“a brilliant writer”) – than before.
The material Stigers has been performing this year is also very reflective of what’s been happening in his personal life – it was obvious when he introduced the Bob Dylan song Things Have Changed to the Queen’s Hall crowd in March that something had indeed changed in his outlook. “My marriage ended about a year and a half ago,” he explains. “I ended up not using any of my own songs on the record because I never can quite get to the thing that I’m going through until a year or two has passed. I’m good at looking back and then writing my experiences for material. I’m never very good at getting up in the morning and feeling like hell and then writing a song about it.”
Instead, he and his producer Larry Klein put together an album of songs which had taken on new meaning to Stigers in his new, raw, emotional state. “That Dylan song, I’d heard it 100 times before but had always pegged it to the story of the movie it came from (Wonder Boys) but then Larry asked me to consider it and I thought: ‘This is about me’.” The cynical, defiant and aggressive attitude of the song – which comes over much more strongly in Stigers’s live performances – actually helped the singer deal with what he was going through. “Up to that point, I’d been, frankly, pretty beaten up and pretty sensitive and I needed something that pulled me out of the sadness and more into the ‘alright, fuck this – I’m moving on’ stage.”
Wherever he goes next – whether it’s more hard rock (his is the voice on the hit theme song of the phenomenally successful US biker drama Sons of Anarchy), performances with orchestras (he fell in love with singing with strings – “it’s like sex” – thanks to his appearances with the John Wilson Orchestra) or more of these small club, duo gigs – it’s safe to say that Stigers will never be short of an audience. Especially in Edinburgh.
* Curtis Stigers plays the Dirty Martini at Le Monde, George St, on December 3-5 at 9pm each night. For tickets and info (or to book a dinner package), call 0131 270 3939 or email firstname.lastname@example.org; or visitwww.dirty-martini.co.uk/curtis.htm or www.ticketmaster.co.uk/curtis
This article was first published in The Scotsman on November 29