Curtis Stigers (vocal & tenor saxophone) with Matthew Fries (piano), Phil Palombi (double bass) & Keith Hall (drums)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 29 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
“Those who remember me for the long hair and waistcoats back in the nineties may be surprised to learn I’m a jazz singer”, quipped Curtis Stigers during this 100-minute set in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. In fact, Stigers is a forerunner of many present-day singers who freely combine blues, standards and pop within what might loosely be called a ‘jazz idiom’ (Jamie Cullum, anyone?) – which is to say that not only was he there first, but also that he makes more out of the synthesis than anyone else; at least in a set as diverse as it was distinctively and – in instrumental terms – scintillating rendered.
Opening with a suave take on Elvis’s early classic ‘That’s Alright (Mama)’, Stigers then tackled his sensuous ‘You’re All That Matters To Me’ and the bittersweet standard ‘My Foolish Heart’. Joe Jackson’s ‘Fools In Love’ was expressive without being sentimental, which might also be said of ‘I Only Wanna Be With You’ (co-written with his brother Jake) and the quirky but appealing Dan Zanes number ‘Night Owls’. Stigers’s own ‘I Need Your Love’ proved a highpoint with its smouldering emotion (he should do ‘dark’ more often), before a breezy workout on Lennon and McCartney’s ‘I Feel Fine’ brought up the interval.
Vocally, Stigers has not so much matured as grown more characterful with age: edgy and soulful by turns, his singing is enhanced by superb timing (how many younger pretenders can ‘place’ the words with this clarity and meaning?), while his short but sharp sax breaks find a natural interplay with the ensemble.Speaking of which, there can be few jazz trios on the circuit today who play with this level of musicianship – whether Matthew Fries’s mesmeric keyboard runs, Phil Palombi’s insinuating acoustic bass (almost a lost art a decade or so ago, happily returning to prominence), or Keith Hall’s elastic percussion: a superb combo who could themselves have held the stage, and who encouraged Stigers to ‘go places’ with his characterisation that undoubtedly added to his performance on this occasion.
The second half opened with an elegant but not unduly polished rendering of Dylan’s ‘I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight’, then a highlight in the quiet ecstasy of Tom Waites’s ‘San Diego Serenade’. A raunchy take on Emmylou Harris’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Talk About It Now’ (hardly a ‘shrinking violet’ of a song in the first instance) brought an abrupt change of mood, the trio firing on all cylinders, as did the plaintive nature of ‘Don’t Go Far’. A fractious take on Mose Allinson’s ‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’ gave vent to Stigers’s frustration with politicians in general (and with G.W.B in particular), while Paul Simon’s thoughtful ‘American Tune’ enabled him to express similar concerns more poetically. A discreet and subtle update of Stigers’s own ‘I Wonder Why’ took the official set through to an almost sing-along close.
So, a well-chosen set from a performer of ever-broadening range. Stigers and co went for the jugular with an explosive workout on Charlie Parker’s ‘Through the Years’: a fitting conclusion to the evening.