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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

New Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues album 'Different Voices' ties together Siegel's uni

Corky Siegel

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues Different Voices (Dawnserly Records)

Chicago blues legend Corky Siegel's latest album with his Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues classical/blues ensemble, he says, is "the culmination of all my experiences with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and the other blues masters, Jim Schwall and the Siegel-Schwall Band, and classical luminaries like Seiji Ozawa and William Russo."

"But it would be much easier to explain if I just played the blues!"

Indeed. It's always been a challenge to describe the hybrid chamber blues music form of blues pianist/harmonica ace Siegel, who apprenticed with the likes of Wolf and Waters before forming the Siegel-Schwall Band with guitarist Jim Schwall in 1965 and later recording composer Russo's "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" with the group's huge fan Ozawa.

But new album Different Voices, which Dawnserly Records releases on April 7, does in fact transcend description. While the 12-piece set—co-produced by Siegel and wife Holly Siegel--features Siegel's classical string quartet (violinist Jaime Gorgojo, violinist and erhu player Chihsuan Yang, violist Dave Moss and cellist Jocelyn Butler Shoulders) and crosses more than one musical genre, it's still easily accessible—even while conceptually complicated.

"In the first cut, 'Missing Person Blues Op. 26,' blues, classical, and jazz are having a ball, chasing each other around the room as if in a spin cycle where the garments never lose their unique shapes or colors," says Siegel, who engages in a musical exchange on the track with Grammy-winning saxophonist Ernie Watts. As for Different Voices' cover of one of Siegel-Schwall's most exciting songs, he notes, "In 'Angel Food Cake' there is a very stark 'call-and-response' between what sounds like blues improv and written classical phrasing."

"One of the techniques that I use is an ostinato—a repeated figure that strongly expresses either blues or classical music—and turn it into an opportunity to utilize classical-type riffs. Even during the Siegel-Schwall days I tried to come up with something unique, and 'Angel Food Cake,' was unique, partly because of the bass line on the original arrangement, which was inspired by psychedelic rock. I thought it would be nice to go back and develop it further."

Siegel continues: "When somebody enters the world of Chamber Blues, they're confronted with what Chamber Blues is, which is the juxtaposition of blues and classical. In the particular case of 'Angel Food Cake, it's juxtaposed in the call-and-response manner, where a modern blues arrangement is answered with a classical arrangement--so there are two clear genres responding to each other in call-and-response fashion, but still utilizing a rhythm feel."

Additionally, "there's a modern blues bass line in the cello and viola, and more of a classical/blues phrasing in the two violins—probably reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf and [Wolf's guitarist] Hubert Sumlin and Muddy Waters, when Wolf does his [vocal] howl. The violins are using that against the modern blues bass line of the cello and viola--so the string quartet is playing the blues part and then the classical part. The call-and-response part, then, is mostly present in the beginning with the string quartet, but later the string quartet plays very classical in response to my blues harmonica solo phrases—and the last part is the cacophony of both happening at the same time!"

Besides Watts, Different Voices features guest artists Sandeep Das, the Indian tabla master and original Silk Road Ensemble member; vocalist Marcella Detroit, who sings Eric Clapton's hit "Lay Down Sally," which she co-wrote; Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Matthew Santos; Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong; tabla player Frank Donaldson; and Sam Lay, the Chicago blues drumming great and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee who has played with Siegel in later editions of Siegel-Schwall.

Lay sings on "Italian Shuffle/Flip Flop & Fly," which pairs a Siegel original with Big Joe Turner's 1955 jump blues hit.

"I wanted to write a Chicago blues shuffle that wasn't blues but was classical--but still have a Chicago blues shuffle feel," says Siegel. "One of the techniques I used was writing melodic lines that couldn't possibly be blues--and I succeeded to the extent that it turned into something more like an Italian opera where you're not expecting Sam Lay to come in but Dean Martin! And at the point where Sam's about to come in, it starts transitioning into what might be called [ragtime-like folk] Piedmont-style blues. We've had people like [esteemed blues harmonica player] Sugar Blue and [R&B singer] Otis Clay sing it with us live, and when Sam first did it, everyone was really confused until it transforms into blues."

"Galloping Horses," meanwhile, transforms into something entirely different, thanks to Yang's two-stringed Chinese erhu fiddle play.

"One thing that smart musicians do when they work with other musicians is make sure they're featured contributors," says Siegel. "Everyone has something to offer that's great, and we should make sure we support and honor that and present it in the best possible light. Chihsuan plays erhu and this piece is a regular feature in our live performances and people really love it."

Different Voices ends with "The Sky Will Fall," which features Santos's voice on the bridge, and is actually the first blues classical piece Siegel wrote alone, back in 1975.

"I was working on a sci-fi musical with singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley, and it was one of the main tunes," says Siegel, noting that wife Holly's brother had been directing plays for Tennessee Williams and had given him a tape of the songs, and that Williams said he played it over and over and especially loved "The Sky Will Fall."

"I'd written a version for Chamber Blues that people really loved, but it fell off our repertoire for a while, and I decided to look at it again and in 2015 added a bridge to the song with a strong message: 'Showing a face that's one of impassion/Falling from the space of love/Never offering a trace of heartfelt compassion/Falling from the grace of love.' Of course, if we don't learn to love, the sky will fall—it's a little trite, but something that has to be said."

In a similar vein, Siegel singles out Different Voice's fresh take on the Albert E. Brumley, Sr. gospel staple "I'll Fly Away," featuring Sons of the Never Wrong, as another album track that promotes a sense of healing, "especially these days with so much divisiveness. I'm very conscious of being involved in politics now more than ever, and doing it in a way that's uplifting and brings people together."

Healing, in fact, "is one of the inspirations for Chamber Blues in the first place—though what's amazing is I only just thought of that this morning!" Siegel relates.

"The music felt good. It was healing—healthy. And it didn't have banging drums or searing guitars, but wooden sounds that were acoustic—and if I got a headache and the group was rehearsing, I would lay down on the floor in front of them and the headache would go away because of the soothing sounds of the string quartet."

"I'm not knocking other music," concludes Siegel. "It's just that this music is not only fun and exciting but comparatively healing and soothing. People come up at our concerts and tell me they're sick or upset and now feel better--not that I deserver credit: That's what music does--unless it's extremely dissonant. My music is painfully tonal!"

But he notes that if there's a theme running through his first 1960s gig at Chicago's legendary South Side blues club Peppers to Different Voices, it's "the joy of diversity and togetherness" that has enriched and shaped his life and career.

He points to the album track "One," which he co-wrote with Holly and again features Santos, as "the culmination of all this--where we look out at the world and see we are all intimately connected."

"Angel Food Cake"



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