EL CERRITO, Calif. - A conversation with Ed Reed can feel like an encounter with bebop’s Zelig.
Like the eponymous protagonist of Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, the late-blooming 82-year-old jazz singer seems to pop up at portentous historical moments. Like the time he was busted for possession of narcotics with tenor sax titan Dexter Gordon. Or when his duties as an inmate at San Quentin State Prison included delivering lawbooks to “Soledad Brother’’ George Jackson in solitary.
These days, however, Reed is making his own history. Celebrating the release of his third CD, “Born to Be Blue,’’ he performs Wednesday at Scullers with pianist Randy Porter, drummer Akira Tana, tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo (the only player not featured on the CD).
While he sounds utterly assured on the album, Reed didn’t conceal feeling awed by his rapid rise from unknown to headliner at an age when most people are deep into retirement.
“This whole thing has turned my life around,’’ said Reed during a recent interview with his wife, Diane, at a cafe near their house in the East Bay. “We were sitting there working on charts this afternoon saying we never saw this coming.’’
“I didn’t even know Ed sang until years after we met,’’ Diane said, noting that they started dating at the University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1960s.
Once driven to self-medicate by insecurity and torturous angst, Reed is no longer trying to blend into the background. Since recording his first album at the age of 78, he’s taken his rightful place as one of jazz’s most keenly observant singers, a masterly balladeer with a fine-grained baritone who turns familiar standards into wrenching tales.
“I started teaching singers a few years ago, and I tell them, you’ve got to see what you’re talking about,’’ Reed said. “Who is this person? Who are they talking to? What’s the circumstance and emotional landscape? When you can get yourself into that, that brings the lyrics alive.’’
The jazz scene is no stranger to artists who return to the limelight after long stretches in obscurity, but Reed is that rarest of cases, a musician who has come into his own late in life.
“Some people have compared his sound to Johnny Hartman, but Ed is more a vocalist who interprets lyrics than a crooner,’’ says Tana, who spent two decades as an elite New York drummer after getting his start on the Boston scene in the mid-1970s while studying at New England Conservatory. “He’s like Ruth Brown or Abbey Lincoln or late Billie Holiday, though his voice is in really good shape. He’s really lived those songs.’’
Almost every piece on “Born to Be Blue’’ comes with a motivational backstory. Referring to Blossom Dearie’s “Inside a Silent Tear,’’ a song that sets the tone on “Born to Be Blue,’’ he quoted the lyric, “ ‘Hide the emptiness/ To lose the loneliness,’ that describes my addiction,’’ Reed said. “That’s my story.’’
The album’s opener, “Old Country,’’ a devastating sketch of an immigrant fallen on hard times that Nancy Wilson introduced on her star-making 1962 album with Cannonball Adderley, keys into Reed’s teenage memories of a homeless alcoholic he used to see around his neighborhood in Watts, where his family moved from Cleveland in 1936. Reed feared he was looking at his fate, but he survived the worst he could throw at himself. Since getting clean for good in the mid-1980s, he’s gradually found emotional release in music.
He not only treats each song like a new discovery, Reed continues to open himself up to fresh creative endeavors. He’s increasingly incorporating blues into his book, particularly tunes that Art Tatum recorded with Big Joe Turner.
For various reasons he avoided the blues for most of his life, starting with the objections of his striving middle-class family.
“At home, I couldn’t listen to the blues or sing them,’’ he said. “I don’t like much of the lyrics, they’re too blaming. Somebody else has done this to me, and if it wasn’t for you everything would be all right. I haven’t been interested. But the audiences have been so responsive I just feel that I need to do them.’’
He’s also been branching out with new musicians. Last month he performed a set with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, his first time working in a big band setting since his days as a featured singer with the San Quentin jazz band in the 1950s. At the time, it may have been the most talent-laden ensemble on the West Coast.
“It was like all the ghosts came and supported me: Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Frank Morgan,’’ Reed said.
“I had never heard him sing ‘In My Solitude’ like that,’’ Diane added. “It takes on a whole new meaning when you think about San Quentin.’’