After three flights and a 22-hour travel day (and night) from Copenhagen to Boise, jazz singer Curtis Stigers sounded no worse for the wear.
“I’m weary but I’m not going to complain about getting to sing for a living,” Stigers quipped.
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He was in Denmark last week on tour with the Danish Radio Big Band, one of the best jazz orchestras in the world, in support of a live recording that was released last month in Europe.
“One More for the Road” pays tribute to Frank Sinatra’s live album “Sinatra at the Sands.” It’s a collection of what became Sinatra’s signature songs that were recorded live in 1966 at the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It featured Count Basie and his orchestra and was conducted and arranged by Quincy Jones. They all were artists at their peak.
Stigers’ album was released Jan. 20 in the United States.
This is Stigers’ third album in the past five years, and his first live recording.
“The two records before were both studio recordings, and they’re partners in a yin and yang sort of way,” Stigers says. “The first (“Let’s Go Out Tonight”) is about the end of my marriage. The second (“Hooray for Love”) is the antidote to that. You can survive heartbreak. But this album stands alone. It’s a documentation of one night, three years ago.”
In 2014, Stigers performed a concert with the Danish Radio Big Band at the DR’s Koncerthuset, a high-tech concert hall set up for live broadcasts.
They performed the songs from Sinatra’s album, including “Come Fly with Me,” “Summer Wind” and the title track “One for My Baby and (One More for the Road)” and a few of Stigers’ originals that are popular in Denmark.
It went out as a live radio broadcast, and Stigers returned to Boise and moved on to the next project. Two weeks later he received an MP3 of the concert. When he got around to listening to it a month later, he was struck by it.
“A concert is like a train ride,” Stigers says. “You forget about it when you get off at your station. But I thought this was really good, so I sent it off to my manager.”
When Stigers’ label, Concord Music Group, heard it, talk started about releasing it as part of the industry’s celebration of Sinatra’s 100th birthday in 2015. That timing didn’t work out, but they were able to get it released in 2016 in Europe for the 50th anniversary of the “Sinatra at the Sands” recording.
The album is currently at the top of the charts in Denmark, where jazz enjoys a broader audience and Stigers has star status. The album is getting great reviews across Europe and the U.K.
The London Evening Standard wrote that it’s “a suave start to the new year from the evergreen Stigers, whose luxurious voice glides through these 10 Sinatra covers with a combo of hip knowingness and old-school panache.”
From pop to jazz
Stigers spends most of his professional life on the road — or in the air, more accurately — these days. He flies to London, Stuttgart, Copenhagen and Paris regularly, and enjoys coming back to Boise and his family.
“I lived in New York City for 16 years, and when I would arrive at JFK, it would add to my stress,” he says. “Flying into Boise, I feel the weight of the world is lifted off my shoulders. The quality of life is great here and it’s an incredible place to raise a family. I know that because I was raised here, and I’m raising my daughter.”
Stigers is one of only a handful of Idaho musicians who have gone on to bigger things. It’s a rarefied group that includes Doug Martsch of alt-rock band Built to Spill, the late Las Vegas showman Paul Revere, crooner Jim Pike of the Grammy-nominated trio The Lettermen, Grammy-nominated folk icon Rosalie Sorrels and alt-folk/rock singer Eilen Jewell.
In the late 1980s, Stigers bounced around a bit, playing in Boise bands such as The Hightops and The Young Jazz Lions, and eventually landed in New York City at 21 and reconnected with his buddy, jazz pianist Paul Tillotson. They got a regular gig playing at Wilson’s Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where scouts from Arista Records caught Stigers’ act.
As a long-haired pop star, Stigers landed at No. 9 on Billboard’s Top 10 with his ballad “I Wonder Why,” a cut from his 1991 self-titled debut album. That led to appearances on late-night TV shows such as “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He opened for Eric Clapton and Elton John, jammed with Prince, Bonnie Raitt and others, and performed a cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” on 1992’s “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, still the top-selling soundtrack of all time.
But pop-stardom ran its course after a split with Arista’s Clive Davis, and in the early 2000s Stigers returned to Boise and reconnected with his jazz roots. He grew up in the Treasure Valley and attended Capital High School. He and Tillotson learned about jazz from musical legend and jazz pianist Gene Harris, who just happened to retire here. (Tillotson and Stigers remained close until Tillotson died in June after a long battle with cancer.)
The return to jazz meant he had to prove himself all over again. He fought long and hard to earn international acclaim as a jazz musician and vocalist.
He’s performed at jazz festivals and clubs around the world. He was named the BBC Jazz Artist of the Year in 2007 and received the German equivalent of a Grammy in 2010. And he performs in Boise, where he continues to support the local music scene and the community at large.
He produces the annual Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza benefit for Interfaith Sanctuary, and the summertime McCall Jazz Festival, which benefits The Shepherd’s Home foster care organization. He does an annual benefit for his high school alma mater’s music programs and performs as often as he can at The Record Exchange, his favorite record store in the world, he says.
“I grew up going to The Record Exchange,” Stigers says. “I was one of those kids hanging out and thumbing through the stacks. Today, there aren’t record stores anymore. They’re a rarity and this one is just a gem. I know lots of musicians who come to town with Jackson Brown or Bonnie Raitt and they all go down there. And (owners) Mike (Bunnell) and Jil (Sevy) have become friends. They support everything I’ve ever done and I love being able to support them.”
‘Come fly with me’
Stigers never intended for the Danish Radio Big Band performance to become an album. It’s a happy accident that comes from following your heart, Stigers says.
“I approach music in an instinctive way,” he says. “I never set out to make a record with a point or a message, but when it’s done it always has a reason. When I did ‘Let’s Go Out Tonight,’ it was a record of 10 songs, all covers, but it ended up that it was my life’s story, my autobiography in songs.”
This recording may not be as close to the bone, but it is close to his heart.
“This felt really great. I didn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s not going to change music, but I got to step into Sinatra’s shoes and make amazing music,” Stigers says. “I don’t try to sing like Sinatra; this is definitely my take on the music. It’s a fun, exciting record, and it’s fun to go support it by performing with big bands.”
Stigers leaves on Monday, Jan. 16, for Germany and a seven-city tour with the SWR Big Band. And there are more such big events scheduled throughout the year. But needing a big-band sound makes it tough to perform the album in the United States. In Europe, the bands he performs with are often state-sponsored, making it more affordable.
But he is working on a couple of ways to bring it to his hometown.
He will perform one piece at his annual Capital High School fundraising concert with the school’s music groups and big band on Tuesday, Feb. 28. (See details, above)
“It’s a big piece for a high school band to bite off, but the director is excited to try and do that,” Stigers says.
He’s also thinking about putting a horn section together to play with his usual rhythm section, and looking for any other opportunity that might present itself.
Even with the whirlwind that is happening around “One More for the Road,” Stigers is already looking for his next project.
He sat in this past fall with New York bandleader Vince Giordano, who specializes in pre-1935 big-band jazz like he plays for the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire.” Now they’re talking about doing an album. And he’s getting the hankering to record something more intimate and closer to home — an album of his own music with acoustic guitar.
Buy the album
Curtis Stigers’ “One More for the Road” was released Friday, Jan. 20. You can buy a copy of the album at Stigers’ favorite record store — The Record Exchange, 1105 W. Idaho St. in Downtown Boise. There is talk of also releasing the album on vinyl.
Capital High Benefit Concert
7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28, Capital High School, 8055 W. Goddard Road, Boise. $15 in advance at the school, or by calling 854-4592 for will call. $20 at the door.