Tag Archives: Nat “King” Cole

Songs for Soppy Cynics (and Swinging Lovers)

CurtisCurtis 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


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The Cat in the Jazz Hat

Photo_Liquid Sp_300CMYK 1It’s not often you put the phone down from an interview with someone who is probably enduring 20-odd interviews a day, and think “What a lovely guy,” but, then it’s not very often you come across someone as charming and unassuming as Gregory Porter, the soulful 42-year-old jazz singer who is no longer the “next big thing” but the “big thing” itself.

Porter, who performs in Glasgow on Saturday, is currently riding the wave of Grammy and chart success thanks to Liquid Spirit, his debut album on legendary jazz label Blue Note. Porter’s appeal may go well beyond the jazz arena, but his musical roots lie very much in jazz and gospel, the types of music with which he grew up in California.

The combination of a very present mother and a completely absent father shaped the course of Porter’s journey through music. His mother was a minister who raised eight children in what Porter describes as “a very musical household”. Everyone mucked in with cooking and cleaning, and there was always a soundtrack, whether it was from the radio or from the family singing which, of course, they did in church as well as at home.

For Porter, whose talent was identified early on, singing was a way of getting his mother’s attention. “I was a mama’s boy,” he admits, “and that was a way to get on to her side. The two things that I really love to do are cooking and singing – two things my mother really loved. I was number seven of eight kids – so you had to find some way to distinguish yourself in the household.”

It may sound ridiculous, but it was in his mother’s record collection that Porter, whose teenage tastes already included Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, found a father figure – in the great singer/pianist Nat “King” Cole. He explains: “I became obsessed with Nat King Cole. I was using his music and his style, and even the images from his records, to satiate me in some way in some absence that I had – in terms of a father figure.”

Cole’s rich, chocolatey voice was comforting, and he seemed to exude an air of wisdom. As imaginary fathers go, his appeal is pretty obvious: on the much-repeated television shows that he made in the 1950s (he died in 1965), he came across as an avuncular personality, introducing his songs as if dispensing advice and addressing the audience as if he was talking to close friends and relatives. Porter remembers album covers making a particular impression on him: “A lot of them show him sitting by the fire with a pipe.” He always came across as a family man.

Not only did Nat King Cole to some extent plug an emotional gap in the young Mr Porter’s life, but he also proved to be the launchpad for his career. In 1998, Porter had been singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego while attending the state university on a football scholarship when he was invited by local pianist/saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta to visit him in the Los Angeles recording studio where he was producing flautist Hubert Laws’ album Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.

When Laws overheard Porter singing along to the song Smile, he was so impressed that he decided to include him on the album. Another twist of Nat King Cole fate that day was a chance encounter with Laws’ sister, a singer who was about to join the cast of a new musical, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. One thing led to another – and Porter landed one of the leading roles when it opened in Denver. Off-Broadway then Broadway success followed, and in the New York Times’ 1999 rave review, Porter was mentioned as one of the show’s “powerhouse line-up of singers”.

The Cole connection didn’t end there: in 2004, Porter wrote his own musical – about his relationship with his “father figure”. In Nat King Cole and Me – A Musical Healing, he played a character based on himself, a boy seeking love and guidance and finding it in Cole, who – like him – had “grown up in the church”, with both parents involved in the ministry.

Porter’s love for Cole was ultimately expressed in many ways – and may soon manifest itself in a duet with his surviving daughter, the singer Natalie Cole – but initially, during the early years, it was his own, “private” music. “I liked that,” he says. “I still do that to this day. I like it when there’s some unique singer that not a whole bunch of people know about – and it’s my personal musical conversation that I’m having with them.”

So, do any other singers get a look-in as influences? Porter chuckles and replies: “Yeah. For me, very different stylistically [from Cole] but in the way that both are singing from a very emotional standpoint I would say Donny Hathaway. Also Bill Withers and Lou Rawls – those styles and types of voices and approach have always been very influential to me.”

Another key influence is the jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln – but not so much for her singing. “In terms of my writing and even approaching my music, she has been very much an influence. She was very personal with her style and her offerings of music. She would put personal stories, personal cultural stories, into her writing and it’s almost hard to imagine anybody else singing her music – and so I think I’ve taken cues from her. She was willing to put her politics into the music as well; life being politics – she put that into the music, and that was something that affected me and my thinking about music as well.”

All but three of the 14 songs on Liquid Spirit were penned by Porter who has been praised for the way in which he weaves social and political observations into his songs, and for his ability to translate painful personal experiences into poignant lyrics that are easy to relate to. Doesn’t he ever kick himself and think: “I wish I hadn’t put that song on the album – because now I’ve got to keep singing it?!” Isn’t it like reliving the same experience over and over?

Laughing heartily, he says: “Yeah! But I’ll tell you something that’s interesting. I keep being asked ‘who is Laura?’ [from the brink-of-break-up song Hey Laura]… Actually, she was from Edinburgh! I’m speaking to you from Laura’s home in Colorado.” He doesn’t elaborate.

Of course, the other question that Porter is always being asked is “what’s the story with the hat?”. The singer is never seen without his signature bunnet-cum-balaclava.  Is it, as one paper reported, the sartorial equivalent of a security blanket – his “jazz blankee”? Does he have a scalp condition? Is it a homage to Thelonious Monk who was seldom seen sans wacky chapeau.

The singer chuckles good-naturedly. “It goes with what I feel about music. I admire people who are their own individuals in the music, who have a distinct and unique sound and approach. That’s what jazz is supposed to be – you’re supposed to be a unique individual in the music. It also applies to your personal charisma and style – and even with your personal dress. As a jazz musician, you’re probably supposed to be a little bit out of the box. And let’s face it, there have already been a whole bunch of great jazz hats – Count Basie’s sailor caps, Lester Young’s pork pie hat etc. This is mine.”

* Gregory Porter plays the ABC, Glasgow, on Saturday.

 First published in Scotland on Sunday on April 27


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CD Recommendations

Scott Hamilton & Alan Barnes: Hi-Ya (Woodville Records)

What a superb album this is. The second horn-to-horn encounter between saxophonists Scott Hamilton and Alan Barnes on the Woodville label, it finds both musicians on top form on a selection of mostly Johnny Hodges tunes. Every track’s a winner but among the highlights are Hamilton’s rich, laidback tenor solo on First Klass, which contrasts beautifully with Barnes’s alto; their thrilling musical tug-of-war on The Jeep is Jumping; David Newton’s funky, understated piano solo on the lovely Broadway Babe, and Barnes’s powerhouse performance on June’s Jumpin’.

The Warren Vache-John Allred Quintet: Top Shelf (Arbors Records)

I must confess to being familiar with the music on this CD before it was released: I wrote the liner notes earlier this year. And was thrilled to do so, as this is a first-rate album which showcases American cornet star and his co-leader, trombonist John Allred – musical partners who couldn’t be better matched. Both players distill influences from the classic, swing and bop eras and, in each other’s company, revel in a rare chance to flex their bop muscles on tunes by the likes of Blue Mitchell (a particular favourite of both) and Cannonball Adderley.

Nat “King” Cole: The Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert (Hep  Records)

A Carnegie Hall concert headlined by Nat “King” Cole and his Trio and Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd took place in November 1949, but until very recently, it was assumed that there was no recording of it. Then the Cole set was discovered – and it’s presented here (on the Edinburgh-based label, Hep) for the first time. Cole’s trios were among the greatest in jazz – and the most influential – and in 1949 he was at the peak of his powers. His playing is terrific, the band is really cooking, and his singing is a joy..

Evan Christopher’s Django a la Creole: Finesse (lejazzetal/Fremeaux & Associes)

This sublime CD is one of my favourites of the year so far – and I love it even more now than when I initially reviewed it in July. What makes this Django outfit stand out from the many others on the scene is its Creole twist: Evan Christopher’s sweet and swinging Sidney Bechet-inspired playing blends stylishly with the familiar Reinhardt sound (of two guitars plus bass). Among the numerous highlights of this uplifting album are Bechet’s Passaporto ao Paraiso, Hoagy Carmichael’s Jubilee and two numbers associated with the trumpeter Rex Stewart, who, of course, recorded with Monsieur Reinhardt in the 1930s.

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