Review by Todd Warnke
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CD Numbers: Gray Cat - GCD 4000
Although known primarily by his state-of-the-art blue-eyed soul hits, Boz Scaggs has always shown respect for his musical roots. On his first album he covered Jimmie Rodgers and crafted an epic twelve minute, down and dirty blues classic with Duane
Allman. Other early albums covered country, R&B and early soul with equal ease. Even his mid '70s commercial hit,
Silk Degrees, included jump-blues, while his late career hit and arguably finest album,
1997's Come On Home, is nothing if not a graduate level course on '40s and '50 R&B. And so it was with a fair amount of anticipation that Scaggs fans looked forward to But Beautiful, an album of ten pop standards from the '30s and '40s. The songs here represent the zenith of songwriting and so would seem to be perfect for a voice that has deepened with time but that has lost none of its drive and sex appeal. On the other hand, these songs have also been the nadir of many an unprepared vocalist and it appears that Virgin, Scaggs label for his last four albums, may not have seen a good match here as Scaggs saw, who produced the album and also released it his own label, Gray Cat. The short take is that both Scaggs fans and Virgin have something to point to here. Let's start with the Virgin side of the ledger.
Scaggs' vocals have always joined a sophisticated and worldly sense of love and its perils to an off-the-cuff ease - the perfect blend for cool soul, R&B and the blues. On the other hand, classics of popular song such as
"What's New", "How Long Has This Been Going On?", "Sophisticated Lady" and
"You Don't Know What Love Is" are among the most covered tunes of all time and demand depth of interpretation to stand out in a field that includes the very finest vocalists, arrangers and performers. It is this depth that has always stood in the way of the casual crossover artist and would seem to argue against Scaggs as well. To his credit, Scaggs does not go out of his way to alter his basic approach to a lyric as he takes on these songs with the same balance as in his previous work - laidback and yet with knowledge of the road - and that gives his versions authenticity even as this style tends to lighten the underlying text. For an example, take the opening track "What's New?". The lyric supposes a chance encounter and Scaggs delivery captures that element perfectly, however he does so with a touch less heartache than, say Billie Holliday. An even cleaner example is
"I Should Care". Here the lyric is more pensive and while Scaggs brings excellent voice to the song, he also stays just beyond the emotional center of the tune.
As for the positives, foremost may be the backing quartet. Paul Nagel, arranger and pianist, leaves plenty of space for each player to be heard and develops a lovely, intimate club feel with his background
comping. John Shifflett on bass shows restraint and taste while Jason Lewis on drums sets perfect time. The unexpected player is Bay area newcomer, Eric Crystal on sax. Without slipping into triteness, he adds perfectly placed filigree to each song. The quartet and Scaggs show their best on the title song, where everything clicks. Scaggs approach is the perfect line for these lyrics, just enough longing tempered with experience to sell the emotion, and when Crystal solos, it is with exquisite delicacy, and this against the backdrop of a totally locked in rhythm section.
But Beautiful is far more successful than not, and on that rather large continuum between Rod Stewart recent assault on the Great American Songbook and Joe Williams creating it, Scaggs lies a lot closer to Williams than Stewart, which is hopeful indeed. There is much here to enjoy, and much that hints at further and even higher joys to come.