Before & After: Janis Siegel

janisEverybody knows Janis Siegel from her three decades singing with The Manhattan Transfer, but her own taste and musical personality are best reflected by her various solo recordings. Siegel’s recent studio efforts have dealt with standards, Broadway show tunes and the grits ‘n gravy world of the Hammond B-3. Her new CD, A Thousand Beautiful Things (Telarc), features some of her favorite contemporary songs by Björk, Nellie McKay, Annie Lennox, Sam Philips, Raul Midon and others, recast in Latin arrangements by pianist Edsel Gomez.

In person, Siegel is both thoughtful and quick, and very much in the moment. She recognized many of the artists immediately, poring over the CD notes to examine and comment on song choice. She also expressed genuine interest in the new names, writing some of them down for later downloading. At one point she flipped the script and began playing me songs from her iPod, asking me to identify them. Continue reading

Before & After: Jane Monheit

Jane Monheit wears her musical heart on her sleeve. Maybe it’s because she’s passionate about the music she loves and sings. Or maybe it’s because she’s a hopeless romantic, still basking in the glow of her recent marriage to drummer Ricky Montalbano. In any case, the 26-year-old singer was eager to sit and listen and talk on a beautiful autumn day, while her band did their sound check for that evening’s performance at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland. Unlike some musicians who can be frustratingly reticent or enigmatic, Monheit enjoys conversation and is both insightful and unfailingly polite when discussing her fellow singers. Only once was she less than articulate-when she heard Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza, she welled up with tears and finally admitted she could not find words to adequately express just how much Mitchell’s music means to her. Because we had such a limited amount of time, we jumped right in.

1. Ella Fitzgerald
“Looking For A Boy,” from Pure Ella (Decca Jazz). Fitzgerald, vocal; Ellis Larkins, piano. Recorded in 1950.

Before: Oh, I know this. [sings along]. This is the record with Ellis Larkins, right? This is one of my favorite sides of Ella. I loved when Ella kept it simple. Her voice was so beautiful and so pure and I really tried to learn that lesson from her. These records were such an excellent example for me when I was trying to pare things down and really get to the bottom of the music, rather than worry about vocal gymnastics. And Ella, who could do anything she wanted, made these gorgeous recordings where she was really thinking about the melody. I just love the way Ellis accompanies her, too. They’re both so well suited to each other that they can interpret the tune exactly the way they want to and it’s still a perfect fit. I love the recording they did together of Stardust.

What makes this timeless?

The lyrical content and the beautiful melody. I’d much rather listen to this than hear her wail with a big band, though I love that too. This is something I aspire to. It’s a challenge to just sing the melody. For her to make the choice to stick to the melody-that’s a really powerful thing when it comes from a woman who could do absolutely anything.

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Before & After: Helen Merrill

© Larry Appelbaum

Vocalist Helen Merrill has always surrounded herself with top musicians, from her first jazz recordings with Quincy Jones and Clifford Brown, to her modernist sessions with Gil Evans and Steve Lacy. Merrill was one of the first American jazz stars to live and teach in Japan in the 1960s, and she made time for this listening session in New York on the eve of another trip to Tokyo. Three of Merrill’s finest recordings, Casa Forte and The Helen Merrill-Dick Katz Sessions, have been recently reissued by Mosaic Records.

1. Sarah Vaughan

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” from The Divine Sarah Vaughan, Columbia. Vaughan, vocal; Jimmy Jones, piano; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Benny Green, trombone; Tony Scott, clarinet; Miles Davis, trumpet; Freddie Green, guitar; Billy Taylor, bass; J.C. Heard, drums. Recorded in 1950.

Before: It’s early Sarah. Wonderful. What year was this made? It’s interesting–she had an edge to her voice that she lost later on. Now she’s sounding more like Sarah. The musicality is there; her way of phrasing and improvising on the melody was perfect. I loved hearing that. She was my idol from day one when I heard her singing “Signing Off.” I love her sound and her ability to phrase the way a musician plays. She sang like a horn player with good taste.

After: Jimmy sounded good. I thought it was Miles. Tony was around here a lot. He liked singers, and he was a real character. I used to see him at Leonard Feather’s parties and at a little place uptown where Baby Laurence used to come dance. It was amazing to be a New Yorker then. There was so much talent around.

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Before & After: David “Fathead” Newman

Though he now lives in Woodstock, New York, David Newman will always be known as a Texas tenor. The big-toned saxophonist from the Lone Star State was born into a musical family 70 years ago in Corsicana, not far from Dallas. As a teenager he worked with Buster Smith and played in Red Connor’s band with Ornette Coleman. The early 1950s found Newman playing the blues with Lowell Fulson and  T-Bone Walker, then in 1954 he raised his profile when he joined Ray Charles for a 10 year stretch, first on baritone, then as featured tenor soloist. Newman, who plays all the saxophones and flute, has been making records as a leader since 1958. He’s worked in the studios, recorded jazz dates with Lee Morgan, Hank Crawford, Roy Hargrove, Dr. John, Lou Rawls, and appeared in the Robert Altman film Kansas City. His latest CD, “The Gift” (HighNote) features his soulful sound backed by John Hicks, Bryan Carrott, Buster Williams and Winard Harper. Continue reading