Boz Scaggs’ new album But Beautiful is a standards collection of uncommon elegance and integrity. Performed with a jazz quartet, it includes “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “What’s New” along with the title track and others. But Beautiful is an assured, logical next step in an enduring musical career, and signals the arrival of an important new voice in the domain of the great American songbook.
From his formative years as a musician growing up in Texas in the days of early rock and roll, R&B, the blues and folk, Scaggs was steeped in the music coming out of New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and from down the road, Dallas. He made his way as a journeyman in the small combo tradition as a rhythm and bass guitar player and sometime singer in Madison and Austin before landing in London, England in 1965 with a group from Texas. He went on to travel in the “dharma bum” tradition, playing in small clubs and sitting in “wherever I found myself” for the next couple of years, making his first record and establishing a home base in Stockholm. After an overland trip through Eastern Europe and on to India and Nepal in 1967, Scaggs headed to San Francisco for a gig with the Steve Miller Band that was to last a year and include that band’s first two albums. Next came a solo record on Atlantic, titled simply Boz Scaggs, which was made with the legendary Mussel Shoals rhythm section and featured the great Duane Allman. After being dropped by Atlantic, Scaggs returned to San Francisco to play the club circuit in the Bay Area. This led to a signing with Columbia Records that lasted some 20 years and produced nine records, notably the mid-seventies Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees, and then Middle Man in the 80s. After a ten-year hiatus, Scaggs signed with Virgin Records and recorded four albums including the Grammy-nominated Come On Home, a blues and R&B collection that honored his musical roots, and the critically-acclaimed 2001 release, Dig which was, in his own words, “the best work of my life in music.”
The current release, But Beautiful, sets another career standard. These are the vocals of an accomplished musician who has honed his craft over time and knows how to deliver a lyric; this is a voice enriched by time. Whether the melody wants that high note on the bridge to “What’s New,” or a husky low whisper on “Never Let Me Go,” Scaggs carries the trajectory, stopping to bring out the right word here and there, or nudge the beat with a sly syncopation. It’s an artful, insightful performance, respectful of the songs and daring at the same time. Scaggs’ delivery is intimate, nuanced, contoured.
But Beautiful took root a little more than three years ago when Scaggs made his San Francisco studio available to a member of his band for a jazz session. Pianist Paul Nagel was in the lineup and so impressed Scaggs that he invited Nagel to bring in his trio and cut material of their own. At about that time, when asked to perform at an all-acoustic fundraising concert, Scaggs invited Paul and his band to join him. “I had the idea it might be interesting to rework some of my songs with a more progressive treatment. We added saxophonist Eric Crystal and started rehearsing. Things opened up so nicely I said ‘Why don’t we do a standard?’ I pulled ‘My Funny Valentine’ out of the air – doesn’t everybody want to sing ‘My Funny Valentine’? We did the show, we liked it, the audience liked it, and that’s where the bug bit me.”
“I soon realized I would have a new role as a vocalist,” Scaggs says about his initial encounter with this material. “In this form, it’s just you hanging out there with the melody in a much more complex rhythm scheme with no background singers, no horns, no effects. So intonation and phrasing were going to be more critical, but even more so was the notion of developing an original style and fresh perspective. For Example, ‘Sophisticated Lady’ is most challenging. The Ellington Book is so amazing: they’re such well-crafted melodies in very complex changes. When you finally marry them up to the lyric you know you’ve really been someplace.” Others, like “How Long Has This Been Going On,” could be approached on more familiar terms. “We were looking for songs that had blues inflections, since I come out of that background,” says Scaggs. “This one came more immediately. Then we took it down to ballad tempo to give it our signature.”
“It was Paul [Nagel] who encouraged me to go into the books and dig out these songs and find my voice in each one,” Scaggs recounts. “He and the other fine musicians of this quartet were generous guides into a new, intensely satisfying world of expression.” Listeners will find But Beautiful intensely satisfying as well. It will undoubtedly connect with jazz aficionados, Boz Scaggs fans and anyone who stands by the old A&R man’s adage; It all comes down to the singer and the song. This one comes down solid.