Boz Scaggs' Speak Low. In March 1976 I was at a Boston disco enjoying my college youth when the deejay slipped on a track that took everyone by surprise. No artist's name or song was announced. The track was simply mixed in, after Crown Heights Affair's Dreaming a Dream, as I recall. Record companies back then routinely provided club jocks with albums and 12-inch singles before they were officially released to gauge crowd response. [Photo: Deborah Feingold]
This disco was 15 Lansdowne, one of Boston's best-kept secrets located in the shadow of Fenway Park. It was the first club opened by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, pre-dating Studio 54 by more than a year. To blow away the knowing, after-hours dance crowd, a record had to have a real twist, a hook. If a single bombed, the dance floor would clear and the bar would be jammed with patrons cashing in yellow drink tickets. In the disco timeline, this was nearly two years before the release of Saturday Night Fever, after which the music went glossy and lost its edge. [Pictured above and right: 15 Lansdowne, in recent years as Avalon and after the club's demolition to make way for a larger music complex]
Unlike the other dance tracks played that night in early 1976, the new one sounded different, sort of Joe Simon meets Van McCoy. The track turned out to be Lowdown, off Boz Scaggs' soon-to-be-released album Silk Degrees, and the crowd that night went nuts. The beat and funky bassline were huge. And then came the voice. It wasn't a deep African-American voice, or a Scottish voice singing soul, or a processed South Florida club voice. This voice sounded a hill country, like someone singing in an outdoor shower. As the song progressed, you realized that the guy could really give it up. He was completely inside the lyrics, singing passionately about a girl "putting your business in the street." The deejay replayed Lowdown and What Can I Say several times that night. I bought Silk Degrees the day it hit stores a week later.
So when Boz Scaggs' latest CD, Speak Low, arrived last week, I was a little suspect. Boz last recorded a collection of standards in 2003, but But Beautiful didn't get much play. Was Speak Low a Rod Stewart clone destined for background music in barbershops? I had my answer as soon as I put on the disc. From the first track, I felt the same electricity that hit me 32 years ago in Boston.
Speak Low is a terrific entry for Boz. His voice continues to amaze with a soft leather-on-burlap feel. Each of the album's 12 interpretations is honest, with just a touch of gray around the temples. Boz's voice isn't marinated in music-school training or scraped dry by years of over-use in arenas. That's what makes it special. His timbre retains a just-folks, confessional feel, like the sound of a rural local who leans on your car door to offer directions. The voice is stripped down soul with a country passion that knows its way around the big city. [Photo: Deborah Feingold]
Boz also never goes cute when the melody line gets tough. Instead, he steers right into difficult twists and turns, and the result is thrilling. He could have made a terrible mistake trying to recreate jazz versions or duplicate a 1950s feel. Never the fool, Boz just does his thing with perfectly crafted arrangements by jazz veteran Gil Goldstein [pictured]. This album is a jazz winner.
And the song selection is perfect:
Invitation is taken at a comfortable tempo, and Boz's interpretation is haunting. The song opens with bongos, reeds and an electric piano, with a range of instruments entering and departing along the way. Goldstein is one of the few arrangers around today who can pull together textures like this without intruding on the headliner.
She Was Too Good to Me features fine solos by Goldstein on piano and Bob Sheppard on tenor sax, who slyly tags I Can't Get Started. Boz comfortably extracts new meaning from this Rodgers and Hart standard.
I Wish I Knew, a Gordon-Warren song, has been recorded by many jazz instrumentalists, including John Coltrane (Ballads) and Bill Evans (Explorations). But here you finally get to hear the lyrics. The minor-major key arrangement by Goldstein includes a strong Scott LaFaro-esque upright bass solo by Scott Colley.
Speak Low is one of the album's highlights. It opens with a bass clarinet shuffle riff, and Boz nails the song's sentiment without becoming sticky. Overdubbed reeds and vibes flow in, and there's a great marimba solo. Again, the Goldstein arrangement is fantastic, loaded with instrumental collages and varying tempos. And dig how Boz winds down the tune chased by Sheppard's soprano sax and Mike Mainieri's vibes.
I'll Remember April, Save Your Love for Me and Skylark are wonderful, even-paced interpretations, particularly the Hoagy Carmichael classic.
The album's stunner by far is Ballad of the Sad Young Men. Excluding Anita O'Day's 1961 version with Gary McFarland, this one by Boz may well be the definitive vocal version. Boz handles the song gently, backed by Gil on Fender Rhodes and Bob Sheppard on flute. The nostalgia and feeling Boz gets out of this song will bring tears to your eyes. It's that good.
The last three songs on the album are pure delights. Senza Fine is a breezy waltz arranged for accordion, vibes and piano, backed by drummer Alex Acuna's fine brushwork. Dindi is fairly traditional in execution, but Boz adds a yearning that gives the song more heft and meaning than if he had just surfed the intoxicating Brazilian melody line.
And finally, This Time the Dream's on Me opens with Goldstein playing Thelonious Monk's Reflections. Goldstein's merging of the two songs is ingenious, and Monk's classic gives the Arlen-Mercer standard a new intellect and jazz credibility.
Hats off to Goldstein for arranging a spectacular album. And a firm salute to Boz, who remains dear to my heart. Speak Low has gone right into my iTunes folder, picking up where Silk Degrees leaves off. By the way: We're All Alone, the last track on Silk Degrees, flows perfectly into Invitation, the first track on Speak Low. Combined, the pair makes for a nifty iTunes folder.
JazzWax, the radio show. Next Friday I will be recording the first of four, two-hour JazzWax radio specials for JAZZ.FM 91, Canada's leading nonprofit jazz radio station in Toronto. I will be recording at WBGO in Newark, N.J., New York's top jazz radio station. Ross Porter (JAZZ.FM 91's CEO and author of The Essential Jazz Recordings) and I struck up a friendship earlier this year, and the station syndicates JazzWax on its website each day. Once I know when the first JazzWax show will air, I'll let you know. Wish me luck.
"Fantastic website! Bravo! I'm a big fan. I read with great interest your piece on Johnny Bothwell. According to Wikipedia, he died on September 12, 1995 in Lakeland, Florida. Keep up the great job."
Paul Motian said it. Jazz.com this past week featured Ted Panken's interview with drummer Paul Motian. In the interview, Motian explained when he left Bill Evans abruptly in the early 1960s:
"We were playing at Shelly Manne’s club in California, and it seemed like I was playing softer and softer until I finally felt like I wasn’t there at all. So I said, “Bill, I’m leaving.” He begged me not to quit, but I did. I paid my own way back home. He got Larry Bunker to play drums. They went up to San Francisco, and then they went to Europe for the first time. So I wasn’t happy with the music. I just felt I wasn’t playing."