A Cosmik Conversation with Shaun Dale
Janis Siegel has one of the best known, and best loved, voices in American
popular music, but many of her biggest fans may only know her as one of the
four voices in the Manhattan Transfer, her primary gig for the last 30
years. Her career has much deeper roots, though, starting with her tenure
in an early 60's girl group that had her in the recording studio before
completing high school, and it has much broader reach, as demonstrated in a
solo career that has produced seven albums since 1982.
On her latest, Friday Night Special, Siegel performs ten songs with a
classic organ-tenor group, anchored by the young B-3 wizard Joey DeFrancesco
and the venerable saxophonist Houston Person. The lineup includes longtime
Manhattan Transfer sideman Buddy Williams on drums and guitarist Peter
Bernstein, with guest appearances by guitarist Russell Malone. Together,
they create the kind of late night, last set backdrop for Siegel's vocals
that will convert any setting into a payday party at a candlelit nightclub.
The album also sees the reunion of Siegel and veteran producer Joel Dorn,
who was aboard for her last solo project (I Wish You Love, Telarc, 2002) and
her first (Experiments In White, Atlantic, 1982). With arrangements by
William Eaton and, well, let's let Janis tell the story....
Cosmik: So you have a brand new record out.
Janis: I do!
Cosmik: And it's something a little different, but it's hard to say that anything you do is a little different, because everything you do is a little different.
Janis: (Laughs) You don't know how true that is.
Cosmik: But some things are the same. I appreciate that you got Joel Dorn out of the archive stacks and back into the studio again.
Janis: Thank you. I really take that as a compliment. Because he was working with dead people for years.
Cosmik: He was. I've talked to him about that, in fact, and he has bemoaned not having people around that he wanted to work with, so it's something of a testament to you that he wanted to do the project.
[Pictured: Joel Dorn]
Janis: Thank you. He's quite insane you know (laughs).
Cosmik: I've, ummm, gathered.
Janis: I spend most of my time with him laughing.
Cosmik: Well, that's a good thing. He did your very first solo album...
Janis: That's right.
Cosmik: And now this is two in a row he's done with you, so you're helping to keep his blood pumping.
Janis: He's great. I just sang on another thing he's producing for his label Hyena which is going to be great. This guitarist, Frank Vignola, he's an awesome guitar player, so I just did three tracks on that album. It was really fun.
Cosmik: How much of the decision to do an organ jazz album was Joel's? I know that's a big love of his.
Janis: Well, in the liner notes that he wrote, he actually describes the inception of this album very clearly. He was watching this spaghetti sauce commercial, and this guy was singing "Ah Sweet Mystery Of Life" to a jar of spaghetti sauce. He called me up and said "We've been trying to figure out what to do for your album, what if we do one track, we do "Ah Sweet Mystery Of Life" with an organ-tenor group. And I said "Why not do a whole album?" So that's how it happened, and in fact, we never did do "Ah Sweet Mystery Of Life."
Cosmik: I've read so many Joel Dorn liner notes that to find out that some of them are actually true is kind of a revelation. You assembled quite a group of people to make this album with.
Janis: That was really Joel's input. I've worked with Buddy Williams, of course, for many years. He was the Transfer's drummer for many years. But it was Joel really, that insisted on Joey (DeFrancesco) and Houston (Person) and Peter Bernstein. Russell (Malone) is a friend of mine, so we got him in on more of the duo stuff.
Cosmik: You probably couldn't have found a tenor player who knows more about playing with a vocalist than Houston Person.
[Pictured: Houston Person]
Janis: I discovered that, absolutely. He was just completely delightful. On every cut, he would listen, and he would echo things and play low for me.
Cosmik: I think Etta (Person's wife, vocalist Etta Jones) has to take some credit for that.
Janis: Oh, totally!
Cosmik: She's trained him well.
Janis: She really has. Thanks, Etta.
Cosmik: And Joey De Francesco must be thirty years older than he is, because he's got that style down pat.
Janis: Oh yeah. I mean, he's a really young guy.
Cosmik: And he's a singer himself.
Janis: Yes. He has a really nice voice. He's a trumpet player, too.
Cosmik: A vocalist isn't necessarily a traditional part of the organ-tenor ensemble.
Janis: Actually right, yeah.
Cosmik: So they have to make some adjustments to what they might ordinarily do.
[Pictured: Joey DeFrancesco]
Janis: Yeah. Most of the reviewers, the reviews, they would say "An uncharacteristically restrained Joey DeFrancesco." Not putting it down, they're just saying he's a little more restrained, which I think was right in this context.
Cosmik: Well, sometimes an organ combo will give almost a recreation of the old tenor duels of the 40s, with the organ taking the role of one of the horns, which isn't what this one's about. But there are moments when they crank it up.
Janis: Yes, absolutely. But they knew when to do it, and when not to do it, which was great. The arrangements were really bare bones, and we tried things at the last minute, things we hadn't planned. It was really, really kind of loose and wonderful.
Cosmik: And some of the material is what you would expect out of an old soul jazz date, and some of it's not that at all. Who was responsible for the song selections.
Janis: I'll tell you where everything came from. The Bill Withers tune that opens the album, my neighbor played for me, and I played it for Bill Eaton (the album's arranger) and we decided to really dig in and swing it, instead of the way Bill Withers does it, but that sort of came from me. "My How The Time Goes By" was Joel's idea. He's always been fond of that tune, and I'd never heard of it before, so that was him. "Let It Be Me," Houston suggested. "I Just Dropped By To Say Hello" was also my neighbor. Pretty wacky, huh?
Cosmik: Are you going to put this neighbor on payroll?
Janis: Isn't he great. He's wonderful. He's actually a film director, but he knows and loves music. He does a lot of music videos and stuff like that. Anyway, I take help anywhere I can get it.
Cosmik: One of the tracks that makes me stop and listen a little closer when I play the album is "You Don't Know Me." An Eddy Arnold song isn't exactly traditional material for this kind of album, but it's just Houston and Russell and it's just a beautiful arrangement.
[Pictured: Russell Malone]
Janis: That's Russell. He's a magnificent player and a great accompanist. We kind of just worked that out at my house one afternoon. And Houston, that's what he does, just fills in. It was really great. It was a really pleasant session. There was a lot of barbecue eaten and a lot of old friends seeing each other, it was great.
Cosmik: I wonder, since with the Transfer and in your solo work, you've done so many different styles, and I'm wondering how it affects the way you approach a session, how you might approach a jazz session differently than, say, a pop session?
Janis: Well, there are certain parameters that define a style, don't you think?
Cosmik: Well, sure, and I make decisions as a listener based on those parameters, like "This is a jazz album, this is a pop album," but I'm wondering how those parameters affect a performer. Is there some kind of mental switch you hit for to shift styles?
Janis: Yeah, there's a switch. There's a conscious thing going on in my head. If it's a jazz album, I know I can improvise. I know I'm going to perform in, rather than a more studied and composed pop vocal, I'm just going to do two or thee takes. If it's a pop vocal, I may do a composite vocal. I'm going to be singing it differently, structurally.
I grew up with pop music, and there's a simplicity and directness to that
singing, I think. You're trying to get to the heart of a song as quickly as
possible. It used to be, pop music was only three minutes long or something, so it got to the hook and you wailed on that hook. Now, sometimes with a pop vocal you might do six or seven takes, and then put together your vocals from that, but then, of course, you have to recreate it onstage.
Cosmik: Well, it sounds like it might have taken more than one take to get those backing vocals from the Siegelettes.... (background vocals on Friday Night Special are credited to the Siegelettes, Sylvia's Weinstein, Weinstein, Weintraub and Weinglass)
Janis: (Laughs) Yes, my good friends the Siegelettes. The price was right, that's all I'm going to say.
Cosmik: They must be married sisters, because they all have different last names, but they sing like they're part of the same family.
Janis: Yeah. The Siegelettes.
Cosmik: I saw that and I figured it had to be Joel.
Janis: Of course. Of course it was. And I let him do it!
Cosmik: Speaking of ensembles, I understand that as you were coming up your favorite singers were Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin.
Janis: Yep, that's pretty accurate.
Cosmik: Well, that may explain something about the multiple personality disorder of your singing career.
Janis: (laughs) Yeah. I mean, I grew up really singing pop music. That's what I heard. My parents listened to AM radio, the Good Guys on WMCA, WABC, here in New York, and we went to the theater. We saw the musicals on Broadway. When I started singing I was singing "Doo Wah Diddy" and "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter" and folk music, too. "Lemon Tree" and "The Cruel War Is Raging." When Motown happened, that was it for me. I just sucked that up like a sponge, and Aretha, of course, is the queen of soul. I didn't start listening to jazz until my early teens, and even then it was just a private listening passion. I listened to instrumentalists, mostly.
Cosmik: Well, you play a couple of instruments, right?
Janis: Not really. I play piano enough to arrange. I used to play guitar when I was a folkie, and I play alto saxophone really badly as a hobby.
Cosmik: Well, looking at that list of influences reminded me of growing up in the sixties when AM radio could still offer that kind of range. Frank Sinatra was played opposite the Byrds, and Dean Martin was on the charts with the Beatles. Kids don't have exposure to that kind of range on pop radio anymore.
Janis: You hit the nail right on the head. I know. When I grew up listening to the radio I heard everything from Edie Gormet to Vic Damone to the Beatles to Petula Clark, there was just a really wide range of things. Even when FM started.
Cosmik: Sure, the FM stations prided themselves on free-form programming. You'd go from the Jefferson Airplane to Sun Ra.
Cosmik: But you've created a pretty successful career pursuing that same kind of eclecticism during a time when it's not really there, anymore, as a mainstream commercial trend.
Janis: Yeah, but I think that many people still want to hear that, or have the flexibility to handle that kind of eclecticism. At least the people I know.
Cosmik: How much calculation goes into your approach, how much do you avoid what you might have done before in order to expand the range of what you record or perform?
[Pictured: Manhattan Transfer]
Janis: Well, I have personal desires and goals. I don't like to do the same thing twice, unless I want to get into something in more depth, perhaps. But I really, really like to do a lot of different things. The Transfer used to do wildly eclectic albums, and we were counseled heavily by management and record companies to do more concept albums. I'm ready to go back to our eclectic approach right now.
Cosmik: When people come to shows, people want to hear "Ray's Rockhouse" and "Operator" and a list of songs you could easily name all in the same night.
Janis: It's no problem. We do it.
Cosmik: And people would be disappointed if you didn't.
Janis: That's right. Grant you, we need a very special kind of band to do that.
Cosmik: I'm just thinking that those people would happily accept that kind of range on an album, in fact, they'd be eager to get the album that offered it. I think your instincts there are absolutely right. So, finally, what do you want people to know about Friday Night Special that no one but you will tell them?
Janis: Just that it was so much fun to make. It really was. It was everything that I wanted. I wanted it to be more like a club set, a late night club set, and it really was, although it was done in the afternoons, mostly. The feelings were really, really good on it. Hopefully it comes through in the, I was going to say grooves, but it's not actually grooves anymore, is it? In the encoded digital information. (Laughs)
It was time to let Janis go, since the dinner hour had arrived in New York
and it was time to put together dinner for her son Gabriel. She's something of a renaissance woman - one who can sing a fine pop song, make a great jazz album, whip up a pie, get the kid to the doctor and put dinner on the table, and generously slip a fine interview into the mix. Cosmik thanks Mike Wilpizeski of Telarc Records for the time and energy that made this interview possible and Janis Siegel for thirty years of wonderful music and one very enjoyable Cosmik Conversation.