Boz Scaggs Didn’t Take the Standard Approach to Standards on ‘Speak Low’

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There’s a reason it took Boz Scaggs five years to complete the follow up to But Beautiful, a terrific, small-group collection of American songbook classics that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts in 2003. Scaggs aimed to add more instrumental complexity to his next recording, but was sensitive to the pitfalls associated with using a perhaps too-obvious big band.

“I knew I wanted reeds, bass flutes and clarinets,” Boz Scaggs said back then. “I wanted to try to sing with strings, but I didn’t want it to sound like generic strings.” So, he continued tinkering on the songs that would become Speak Low, released on Oct. 28, 2008 via Decca. He just couldn’t achieve the proper balance of melody and feel, couldn’t find a way out of the, well, standard way of doing standards.

That is, until a walk down a New York side street in the Village, where he chanced upon the Gil Goldstein Septet featuring vibes, a string trio, and a couple of horns. “This was the sound I’d been hearing in my head, exactly,” Scaggs enthused. “After the set, we started talking, and it was just a really nice meeting. When we got together around a piano, that was it. We knew.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Boz Scaggs joined us for a Something Else! Sitdown to talk about his album ‘Memphis,’ the Dukes of September, and singing versus guitar playing.]

Together, they crafted a set of carefully drawn moods – emotionally gripping, rhythmically surprising, sensual rather than ribald in a time when that’s its own headline. That’s a role Boz Scaggs has played for decades, from his elemental blues picking during the counterculture 1960s, to a very adult soul that offset those flashy disco days of the 1970s, and on through to these contemporary forays into jazz, amidst the cacophony of hip hop and plastic pop.

Scaggs’ voice always keenly blended the sway of early hero Ray Charles with Jimmy Reed’s toe-tapping delight. On Speak Low, he added in romantic elements of Chet Baker and Johnny Hartman with the delicate yet devastating backbeat of Billie Holiday. That lithe backing group then provides the kind of sophisticated underpinnings long associated with cool-swinging legends like George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan.

Scaggs, Gil Goldstein and Co. slow down Duke Ellington’s more typically mid-tempo “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me,” but can still add a satisfying groove to Buddy Johnson’s “Save Your Love For Me.” “Skylark,” the soaring Hoagy Carmichael composition, is appropriately dynamic; Jobim’s “Dindi” has childlike grace. Scaggs even pays homage to previous signature phrasings on “I Wish I Knew” (Hartman, on the classic John Coltrane Ballads release) and “She Was Too Good to Me” (so indelibly interpreted by Baker). It’s a inviting mixture of new notions and familiar places – and another full-circle return to form for Boz Scaggs.

He made his name beginning in the mid-’70s singing sleek, urbane hits like “Lido Shuffle,” “Lowdown,” “We’re All Alone,” “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” “Miss Sun” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me” – most recorded with a sessions group featuring keyboardist David Paich (who co-wrote “Lowdown,” which won a Grammy that year for best R&B song) and drummer Jeff Porcaro, who would eventually coalesce into the popular band Toto. But Scaggs was originally a budding guitar hero around the Dallas area as a member of an early, more blues-based version of the Steve Miller Band. Still, he wanted something more.

Dating back to 1972’s My Time, an underrated release that contained the driving minor hit “Dinah Flo,” Boz Scaggs had taken to putting down his instrument. He quickly discovered a similar technical reach, and a stirring artistry, through his vocal work. That’s continued after a break for much of the 1980s. Scaggs later made successful returns into both Top 40 soul-pop (1988’s Other Roads, which contained “Heart of Mine”) and further back into his roots (1997’s recommended groover Come On Home).

Centered in each of his most memorable musical efforts – beginning with the blues, then on to blues rock, to rock, to soul-pop, to pop balladry, back to blues, and now to a breezy West Coast jazz – is Boz Scaggs’ tenor-baritone. He has always had an ear for the just-right, never overly expansive moment.

“Me, I stick close to the melodies,” Scaggs added. “I don’t go out and jump off the cliff; I try to find my place inside the tunes.” That place is transformative and new on Speak Low, another nifty reinvention of the Boz Scaggs aesthetic.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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