CURTIS Stigers is being touted as a headline act for the current The Great Yorkshire Fringe, which runs from Friday, July 21, until Sunday, August 6, but how does the US singer-songwriter and saxophonist feel about the honour?

“First of all, I’ve toured around the UK since 1992. It’s by far my best market in terms of touring, yet I’ve never actually played in York. It’s always been a question in my mind as to why the hell my promoter has never booked me. It’s a nice first for me,” says the performer heading for the city’s Barbican venue on Friday, July 28.

“I once actually got lost driving around the roads of Yorkshire and drove up to the entrance near the big wall and thought, ‘****, that’s quite a wrong turn to take. I was actually heading for Beverley, to play at the former cinema, which I now believe is a women’s clothing shop. I can only blame myself because I was doing a solo tour with my guitar,” says Stigers, who also has fond memories of playing the nearby Pocklington Arts Centre.

Stigers has enjoyed a diverse career which saw his long-haired ballad singing and saxophone playing feature on the pop singles I Wonder Why, You’re All That Matters to Me and Never Saw A Miracle in the early 1990s. But his early interest in soul-jazz saw him switch from Arista and Columbia records to Concord and a string of albums inspired by Sting, Paul Simon, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, each given a jazz spin.

The 51-year-old from Boise, Idaho, has taken an even bigger step by releasing an album, One More For The Road, dedicated to the Frank Sinatra/Count Basie project at the Sands Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas, 50 years ago. At York, Stigers will be repeating his versions of Summer Wind, They Can’t Take That Away From Me and others by Ol’ Blue Eyes with the backing of the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra. “I’ve been making jazz records since 2001. That followed three pop albums, and from there I realised over the course of nine years, and a lot of heartbreak, and no more hit records that the pop world was unfulfilling to me. I liked the music because I’m not just a jazz fan, but trying to live in that world and trying to have a hit record every five minutes was depressing. So, I went back to my roots,” he says.

“Making the Sinatra record wasn’t a departure for me because I’ve been doing this style of record a lot longer than I was doing pop records. It just so happens that I’ve always stayed away from tribute records, I’m not crazy about them and prefer to make my own versions. I’ve also stayed away from Sinatra because the songs are just so good. I always think, ‘Why sing Sinatra when he’s already done the best versions?’ But in my 40s I figured I could sing some Sinatra material live and that’s what I did. This started out as a live performance. It was a live concert that was recorded. The ten songs were never meant to be an album, just me having a ball with the Danish Big Band in Copenhagen. I look at gigs as one-offs. You do them. They feel great. Then you move on to the next thing. This one lived on because it was recorded well on a special night,” Stigers explains.

He says he likes making records, whether it’s his own songs or new arrangements of other’s material, but feels he’s in the business of standing in front of an audience and singing songs and telling stories. “That’s who I am. Getting to do this and borrow some of Sinatra’s material, plus some of my own, with an amazing band, it’s who I am,” Stigers says.

Not many people have combined the three talents of singer, songwriter, saxophonist and he admits that his saxophone playing has always been “a surprise and a special hook”.

“People think, ‘He’s the guy with the saxophone and to be honest as a jazz performer I’m a jazz singer. I’m not a saxophonist. When I stand in front of a band like the Danish Radio Big Band or Ronnie Scott’s, I usually tend to leave the instrument on the stand. I’ll play one or two solos per night because it’s, frankly, humiliating to play saxophone in front of such great musicians. But, on one of my own tunes, I can pull it out and feel good about it,” he explains.

Stigers started out playing the clarinet and studying saxophone, but realised that singing was his forte when soul-jazz piano great Gene Harris settled in Boise and complimented the young jazz student’s singing voice.

“A pivotal moment for me, in the late 1970s, was Gene Harris arriving, particularly as there weren’t many African-Americans who retired there. He had a jam session every Tuesday night and one night he heard me sing and said, ‘I think you’re a good saxophone player, but the singing thing is who you are’. When an icon of jazz says that, you do as he says.”

Stigers now has an annual January concert date, plus tour, in Denmark. “This has grown from the early 1990s when I met a couple of Danish jazz musicians called the Doky Brothers. I met them in New York before I even had a record deal, so after I made my first record I went over to Denmark to perform at a time when I still wanted to perform jazz. I created a jazz career for myself in Denmark, long before I could do that anywhere else. Five years ago, the Danish Big Band got in touch about re-creating the Sinatra show in Vegas and, afterwards, suggested we do the show again and, in January, I’ll be back there for the fifth time. I must admit, I was a little bit nervous about turning the show into a record, but the record company was so excited about it I felt I really should. I convinced myself because if a classical or opera singer sings something that was created 100 years ago, then why can’t I? Why can’t the Nelson Riddle/Billy May arrangements be the Mozarts of their day?”

  • Curtis Stigers and the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra, York Barbican. Friday, July 28.