Everybody 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.
1. Five Corners Quintet with Mark Murphy “This Could Be The Start of Something Big” (from Chasin’ The Jazz Gone By, Ricky-Tick Records). Murphy, vocals; Timo Lassy, tenor saxophone; Jukka Eskola, trumpet, flugelhorn; Severi Pyysalo, vibes; Mikael Jakobsson, piano; Antti Lötjönen, bass; Teppo Mäkynen, drums; Abdissa Assefa, percussion; string arrangements by Tomi Malm. Recorded in 2005. Before: It’s Mark Murphy. It’s the timbre, the quality his voice. That’s why I have a hard time identifying more modern singers, because they all sound the same. There’s no character or life or juice in the voices. Mark’s voice is beautiful I think; very wide range, very evocative bass notes and then he’ll just surprise you by flying off into a higher register. The fearlessness of his singing is something I admire so much. It’s so rich and deep and full of life. After: I really like this arrangement. I just worked with Stefon Harris and I love the sound of the vibes arranged orchestrally with other instruments. It’s kind of a Latin feel. And it’s a tune that can be overdone and schmaltzy, but with him it’s real. 2. Carol Fran “Tou Les Jours ç’est Pas La Même” (from Our New Orleans 2005, Nonesuch). Fran, piano, vocals. Recorded in 2005. Before: This sounds like it’s from that Nonesuch tribute to New Orleans record that just came out. I have it but I can’t remember the name of the woman who does this. [optional cut from here to the After section] It’s an incredible record, such a real representation of the music there. What’s so special about New Orleans music? It’s the mixture, the cooking, the gumbo. All the ingredients and influences: African, French-Acadian, Caribbean and black-American influences. And it’s the rhythm. There’s a certain syncopation that you associate with New Orleans. Reaction to Katrina? I’m not a big fan of the Bush administration and it did seem to me a nation as wealthy as ours to not respond more quickly, to any city but to that city in particular, which is such a treasure, a jewel in the U.S., I did feel it was a racist reaction from the government. And Bush--the buck stops with him. He’s the president. If he wanted to do something he could. After: I like the whole record and she exemplifies it because it’s real. She’s totally rocking. 3. Jeanne Lee “Worry Now Later” (from You Stepped Out of a Cloud, Owl). Lee, vocals; Ran Blake, piano. Recorded in 1989. Before: That’s Jeanne Lee. You don’t hear her too much. I have her  record with Ran Blake. Why do you think we don’t hear her too much? She’s under the radar. She’s like a singer’s singer. Her voice to me has a delicious, smoky quality. That how I can recognize the timbre. She’s somebody you have to sit and listen to. It’s not background music. How many people take the time out of their day to sit on the couch and listen, not be on the computer, not be on the phone, not be reading a magazine, just listen? Not many. Our culture does not encourage that. After: I don’t have this. [she looks at the tunes] “The Wind,” great tune. “Worry Now, Later” --that’s Monk? Interesting. Wow. I’d love to hear this whole record. She was an artist. A true artist. You can hear her life in her sound. 4. Soweto Kinch “Good Nyooz” (from Conversations With The Unseen, Dune). Kinch, alto saxophone; rap vocal; Eska Mtungwazi, vocal; Femi Temowo, guitar; Michael Olatuja, bass; Troy Miller, drums. Recorded in 2002. Before: Sounds like a remix, of Sarah Vaughan maybe? Is it a group? I really like it. The leader is the woman? The saxophone player? It’s kind of a Bird-influenced sax player. Arthur Blythe, maybe? It’s modern but it’s got elements of traditional be-bop, singing the jazz lines vocally, the triplets, but it’s got elements of hip-hop in it. I like it very much. After: That was live? It’s well arranged and thought out. I’ve never heard of them. It’s all original? That’s fantastic. 5. Björk “Sonnets/Unrealities XI” (from medúlla, Elektra). Björk and The Icelandic Choir, vocals. Recorded 2004. I love Björk. She has a unique vision. This is from medúlla. This tune is amazing. She did this album with voices but in an interview she said she didn’t want it to sound like Manhattan Transfer, which I understood. I find her to be so emotional. And I just recorded one of her tunes, “Hidden Place.” I chose it because it gave me goose bumps. To me it was just the sexiest feel, and I love the image of the Hidden Place. That was a big challenge because her melodies and the way she sings is so unique to her and I thought her arrangement was so perfect. I said, how can I bring something of myself to this tune? And I realized I had to improvise the melody using her poetry. Edsel Gomez and I tried all different kinds of things and we realized this would work the best if we didn’t have any chart or even talk about it. I’m just gonna sing these words and you react to them. And the whole song is just one chord, yet there are so many colors and so many different places that it goes. And I saw her do it live at Radio City Music Hall with the whole 80 piece orchestra with choir. It was an astounding experience. Did you meet her? Actually, she goes to my gym and I saw her in the locker room once and I had to go over and say hello. I didn’t even tell her who I was. She was very shy. I just wanted to tell her I was a fan. I sent her a copy of what we did. The poetry of her words really struck me. It’s a beautiful love song. 6. Danilo Perez “...till then” (from ...till then, Verve). Perez, piano; Lizz Wright, vocals; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2003. Before: Lizz Wright, Danilo. I find her voice very beautiful to listen to. She doesn’t use a lot of melisma, which I like, and she’s got a beautiful instrument. I think this is some of Danilo’s best playing. He can be tremendously abstract and free. But I’d never heard him in such a controlled, enclosed form. And his lines around the vocal are so beautiful and perfect and supportive. Interesting journey I took on this tune. I heard this song and decided to do it for my solo tour with Alan Pasqua and Darek Oles. It was difficult to learn because it’s got a lot of odd measures, so I got a lead sheet from Danilo. I performed it in Europe with trio like this and when I first did it, it was like a song to a lover. But for my new record I did it a cappella and it gave it a whole new feeling, more like a lullaby. So, I recorded it in June and in late July my father passed away. One day I was in the gym listening to it and I started weeping and I said, Oh my god, this is the song for my father. [she starts to tear up] So I sang it at his memorial and I told Danilo about it. And he said, “you know I wrote that song for a friend who passed away.” It’s amazing how songs get revealed to you or how they can change. I can see that you’re moved just talking about this. Are you able to sing this live, to connect with that feeling and still be detached enough to perform it in front of people? You’ve touched on a thing that I struggle with all the time. When I sang it at his services I could barely get through it. And I’ve always wondered how you can completely feel something and still have the control that a singer needs. Because you can lose your breath. It’s almost like a self-hypnosis to retain the thread of the emotion--cause that’s what you’re after--and still use your breath to put your song across without breaking down and losing it. You have to lose it but still not lose it. It’s like a zen koan or something. I actually haven’t tried to sing this song in public since then. But I will do it when I go out and we’ll see how it is. 7. Irene Kral “Where Is Love?” (from Where Is Love?, Choice). Kral, vocal; Alan Broadbent, piano. Recorded in 1974. Before: Irene Kral and Alan Broadbent. Irene Kral is one of my idols, in her simple approach to a song, getting to the heart of it. Not a lot of fancy stuff, no scat singing, no melisma, not a lot of vibrato. Great choice of tunes. I’ve stolen many tunes from her. Again, you have to sit and listen to her. She makes you feel things. It’s like that deep, delicious sense of melancholy sometimes. That great bittersweet feeling she can bring out. A longing. And his playing [sighs]. Yeah, he’s one of my handful of favorite pianists to work with, right up there with Fred Hersch. What makes them special is they know the lyrics and they breathe, as opposed to playing a lot of notes and comping. They’re supporting you and leading you to the next phrase because they know what the next phrase is. The piano is essentially a percussion instrument but they play it as if it’s a wind instrument or an orchestra. Of course both Fred and Alan are incredible orchestrators, so they think that way. They play the juiciest chords. After: Impeccable taste, and great pitch. And she did it without Pro Tools. 8. Andy Bey & The Bey Sisters “Sister Sadie” (from Andy Bey & The Bey Sisters, Prestige). Andy Bey, piano vocals; Salome Bey, Geraldine Bey, vocals; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Richard Davis, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. Recorded in 1964. Before: I want to say The Bey Sisters. Whatever happened to those girls? That’s great. I forgot there were words to this. And Andy, a young Andy. He’s deep. To hear him play and accompany himself and just keep you hanging on every word. I was a big fan of his and he would play at the Vanguard with Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. I remember hitch-hiking in from college with [Spyro Gyra’s] Jay Beckenstein to see them. 10 hours of hitch-hiking to go to the Vanguard on a Monday night. After: Hmm. I don’t have this. They’re members of the same family so you’ve got a really good blend. And they all swing their asses off. 9. Ilona Knopfler “I’m Going To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song” (from Live The Life, Mack Avenue). Knopfler, lead and overdubbed vocals; Kim Nazarian, background vocals; Alain Mallet, piano; Rufus Reid, bass; Marty Ashby, guitar; Jamey Haddad, drums; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone. Released in 2005. Before: I really don’t know who this is. A modern vocal group? It sounds like it’s all women. Are they French, or just singing in French? [listens closely] Wow. Very nice. It sounds like it’s a white singer but she’s got a lot going on, a lot of jazz feeling. She sounds like she could be black, which I think is a high compliment [laughter]. I mean she’s soulful. She sounds very relaxed, and she’s a great harmony singer. Very nice arrangement. Perfect intonation. Phrasing great. Appropriate for the style, for the song. It sounds very sophisticated to me. After: Never heard of her. Very, very nice. Never heard of that label either. Fantastic. Where did she come from? Good grief. This is great. I thought the vocal arrangement was very well done. Sort of bringing a gospel tune into another realm. I find it a warm voice, too. 10. Brazilian Girls “Don’t Stop” (from Brazilian Girls, Verve Forecast). Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Didi Gutman, keyboards; Jesse Murphy, bass; Aaron Johnston, drums. Released in 2005. Before: Sounds like Jason Mraz. [she checks her Ipod] Sounds like his writing too. It’s a man, right? No? Wow. It’s a dance record but I can’t keep track of all the styles; trance, jungle, speed. It’s repetitive but there’re some interesting things in the arrangement. I don’t know that I’d want to listen to it again [chuckles]. After: Oh, Brazilian Girls. I actually have this record and I listened to it a little bit, then I discarded it. Yeah, I don’t know what this is all about. I know there’s a big hype about it. I don’t get it. 11. Luciana Souza “Atrás da Porta” (from Duos II, Sunnyside). Souza, vocals; Marco Pereira, guitar. Recorded in 2005. Before: Luciana? She’s got a tremendous combination of qualities. From her background she can sing the shit out of those Brazilian tunes. I mean, her Duos record, I listen to it all the time. But having seen her with Danilo and worked with her on the Dizzy Gillespie project, and having seen her do her Neruda project, she’s got a lot going on. And she’s right to present those different qualities so that she doesn’t get pigeon-holed as “that Brazilian singer.” She can read, she’s a trained musician. She’s like an instrumentalist and she solos beautifully. Pitch, I mean forget about it. She’s right on it, always. I thought her Neruda project was a gorgeous marriage of words and music. This tune, I don’t know what it’s about or what it means but there’s a sense of melancholy, a saudade about it. After: Oh wow! This is Duos II? Did this just come out? I have to get this. 13. Raul Midón “Sunshine” (from State of Mind, Manhattan). Midón, vocal, guitar; Gregoire Maret, harmonica; Cyro Baptista, percussion. Recorded in 2005. Before: That’s Raul Midón. I heard him through Brian Bacchus, who had all this material from Raul, demos and stuff. And I immediately responded to it, that soulful singing plus the guitar playing. Really good guitar playing. And a bit of Stevie Wonder thrown in. Positive, upbeat messages in his songs. I have yet to meet Raul, though I spoke to him over the phone. I was rehearsing with Edsel and we played “Make It Better” for him over the phone. He loved it. So, with the way the record business is, does this music have a chance to break through? Oh god, I hope so. But where is it gonna get played? Where? It’s not smooth jazz, it’s not jazz. It doesn’t seem like it’s MTV material. I could see this on NPR. Sometimes, like the Gypsy Kings for instance, you couldn’t go into a boutique, a store or a restaurant without hearing that goddamned Gypsy Kings album. You wanted to rip the speakers out of the wall after a while. [laughter] And that’s how that broke, you know? As an artist do you think about the marketing of music? I think about it and then I try not to think about it. I mean yes, out of all the different styles that I love to do, I try and pick a project that’s not gonna get lost in the shuffle. I try and pick something I think people will like, but in the end I have to do things that really move me, or else what’s the point? ------------------------------------- [optional additional selections] 13. Dena DeRose “Meditation” (from A Walk In The Park, Maxjazz). DeRose, vocals, piano; Martin Wind, bass; Matt Wilson, drums. Recorded in 2004. Before: Is that Karrin Alyson? She plays piano. Mmm. Nice. A little reminiscent of Ann Hampton Calloway. I like the arrangement. Everybody always does it as a samba. But emotionally and musically it works as a swing piece. It works well. Good pianist. Younger woman, I think. Her voice, it’s light. I loved it. I don’t know who it is but she plays the piano beautifully so she was probably a pianist before she was a singer. Oh, wait a minute. Dena DeRose? After: Yes, yes. She’s wonderful. And Matt Wilson, one of my favorite drummers. I heard her at Sweet Rhythm. She’s quite good. 14. The Barry Sisters “Eishes-Chiyell” (from The Barry Sisters-Their Greatest Yiddish Hits, Legacy International). Claire Barry, Merna Barry, vocals; unidentified orchestra. Recorded 1950s, reissued 1994. Now there’s something you don’t hear very often. The Barry Sisters? [laughter] Oy, fabulous! [laughter] This Before & After originally appeared in JazzTimes in 2006.