Swingin' with Stigers

Curtis Stigers returns to the Gene Harris Jazz Festival


Curtis Stigers lives right here in Boise. Yes, that Curtis Stigers. The one who skyrocketed to fame in 1991 with the Top 10 hit "I Wonder Why," then toured the world with the likes of Prince and Eric Clapton and strutted his pop stuff on Leno's The Tonight Show and Letterman's The Late Show. It's the same Stigers that gave up life as a soft-rock heart throb to follow his musical dreams. Now he's a jazz superstar.

Labels, however, don't sit well with the Capital High alumnus. "Jazz? Rock? Pop? Who's drawing those lines?" he asked. Stigers' goal is simply to make music that moves him, music that expresses honesty and emotion.

The songs on his soon-to-be-released album, I Think It's Going to Rain Today, underscore this original approach to jazz. "I know pop music and alt country. I know rock and roll. I know punk and folk," he said. "I love great songwriters. I've figured out a way to combine my knowledge of music outside of jazz with my jazz singing and put it on a record."

The album borrows hits by contemporary artists such as Sting and Willie Nelson, and somehow teases out new meaning and a deeper understanding of the original songs. "I've been singing the standards of other generations for years," Stigers said. "Gershwin, Porter, Mercer, Rodgers and Hart. I love them, but they're the songs from my grandparents' era. I decided I wanted to find the standards of my own lifetime, of my own generation. There are so many great songwriters working today. Why not exploit that material, find a way to reinterpret those great songs?"

Sting's "I Can't Stand Losing You" is one of those great songs transformed on the new album. "When we recorded it," Stigers said, "we took it down to its essence as a song and then rebuilt in another way. Not all songs are written well enough to stand that kind of scrutiny, that kind of tear-down and remodel." In a press release put out by his record label, Stigers admits to being a fan of the song since he was a teenager, but only recently figured out how to make it swing. "It's a dark song...but somehow it's got a great sense of humor," he said.

Stigers described a jazz recording as a moment in time, a document of live improvisational performance. In his opinion, and he should know, the best way to experience jazz is to see and hear it played live. As a teen-aged musician in Boise, he often played at the Blues Bouquet with the Chicken Cordon Blues and The Hi-Tops, and during breaks ducked over to the Idanha Hotel's Lobby Bar to sit in on open jam sessions with blues-jazz legend Gene Harris.

Harris died in January 2000, and Stigers still feels the loss. "He was beautiful," Stigers remembered. "Very inclusive and encouraging, supportive. It was an amazing school for those of us who showed up on Tuesday nights. I started going during my sophomore year of high school and continued until I moved to New York City in 1987." Stigers later wrote and recorded a song about those heady times called "Swinging Down at 10th and Main," and credits Harris with teaching him how to play intense, emotional music to captivate and reel in listeners.

Stigers believes many first-time attendees at his upcoming concert in the Gene Harris Jazz Festival will discover they like and understand jazz. "It's not scary," he said. "It's music." He recommends the jazz festival to anyone looking for a great time. "It's jazz in downtown Boise. Thursday is Club Night, and it's a gas having a chance to wander from venue to venue, drinking a beer, and listening to different kinds of jazz at each place."

Stigers headlines the Friday night show at the Bank of America Center, with a line-up including internationally acclaimed saxophonist Charles McPherson with the Boise State Big Band and Annie Sellick with the Gerald Clayton Trio. "Playing at Gene's festival is an opportunity to pay homage to him and his legacy, and to thank him for all he did for me and for Boise. It's a great Idaho tradition that should continue to grow and thrive," Stigers said.

The Ramsey Lewis Trio earned top billing on Saturday, and Sunday the Boise State Student Union Jordan Ballroom hosts a free gospel concert. "If played with conviction, and with a respect and love for the music and the audience, jazz is a wonderfully expressive way to communicate. It can be a real party," Stigers said. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is set to declare April 4 through 10 official Gene Harris Jazz Festival Week-and what a party it's going to be.

I Think It's Going to Rain Today will be released by Concord Records on April 19, but locals can attend the record release party and signing early on April 6 at the Record Exchange. The CD will be up for sale this weekend at the Gene Harris Jazz Festival.