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All that jazz

Wren Wertin

From riding in limosuines to changing diapers – how can a man take such a fall?

So sings vocalist/saxophonist Curtis Stigers on “Secret Heart.” As it turns out, he’s glad he did. The musician went from a pop career with multiple top-10 hits to a jazz career with decidely less monetary benefits. But the man is pleased about where he is. He performs today at the Vilar Center in Beaver Creek. The concert is a benefit held for the Vail Jazz Foundation’s educational efforts.

Stigers isn’t interested in simply singing the old standards, though he does sing a few. He wants to bring songs from other genres, and make them jazz – his jazz.

“I’m trying to find new songwriters, like Randy Newman, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello,” he said. “And I fit them into my style. I think that, for me, it finds me a little niche in the world. It keeps it interesting, and puts another version out there.”

His band, a jazz trio, includes Matthew Fries (piano), Greg Ryan (bass) and Keith Hall (drums). They are flying out from New York for the show. He likes to keep it entertaining and casual, with a mix of ballads and raucous foot stompers.

“Everyday. I’m constantly looking for something new to do,” he enthused. “I don’t just have a set version of a song I sing over and over again. Jazz is improv-based. For me music is – it’s not just the perfect cover.”

Part of his love affair with jazz is the lack of image in addition to the need for constant touring and playing. For Stigers, jazz is all about the live performance.

Stigers has played Vail several times. In 1992, while still a bright star in the world of pop, he was traipsing around Europe playing with several groups, including Elton John. BMG, the parent company of Stigers’ label, Arista, was having a rather large conference of company heads in Vail. They wanted Stigers to play for them, and fiddle-dee-dee to the money it would cost.

“Not only did they fly me over, but they brought a lot of my crew and my band, too,” remembered the musician. “Record companies want to spend a lot of money – and I had a couple hits out. I was hot all over the world.”

At the last minute, they opened up the concert at Ford Amphitheater to the public.

As a teen-ager in Boise, Idaho, Stigers apprenticed with the late pianist Gene Harris. He left the mountains for the Big Apple, seeking a career in music. He became a regular performer at Wilson’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which led to a recording contract with Arista Records.

His first album, self-titled, sold nearly 2 million copies and spawned several hit singles, including “I Wonder Why.”

“It was straight-ahead blue-eyed soul,” said Stigers. “And it defined me in the pop world.”

But Stigers didn’t want to be confined to pop. The musician discovered jazz as a kid, listening to the sounds of Chick Corea.

“I’ve always done a lot of different things,” he said. “It never occured to me that I had to do one thing only.”

As a listener he gravitates toward John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but as a singer he’s closer to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennet and Chet Baker. As for his 3-year-old, Ruby, she prefers Dan Zanes to her father’s music.

Stigers used to teach skiing in Idaho in “his college years,” though he wasn’t actually attending classes. Ruby is experiencing skiing for the very first time at Vail.

“When we got to ski school, she got very serious,” described Stigers. “It’s her very first day of skiing. You never know how it’ll work. Sometimes she just jumps right into things. And sometimes not.”

She jumped for skiing.

After their concert, the musicians are heading to Idaho for a couple of weeks to relax and take band photos. Then it’s back on the tour circuit.

“I’m doing what I want to do,” said Stigers. “And I’m making a living at it. … I’m glad I took that fall.”

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.


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