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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Blues-classical pioneer Corky Siegel readies his most ambitious project yet

Corky Siegel's Extravaganza

He’s calling it his most “ambitious” project ever—not to mention his most “ambidextrous and amphibious” one.

But while playfulness has always marked Chicago blues-rock great Corky Siegel’s broad body of work, the legendary Siegel-Schwall Band co-founder is truly serious about his forthcoming Extravaganza—a 100-minute video presentation, hosted by City Winery, of his pioneering blues-classical group Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues. The program is free (donations encouraged) and premieres March 6 at 8 p.m. ET by way of City Winery’s CWTV livestream via the Mandolin live music streaming platform.

Extravaganza links 13 videos from Siegel’s Chamber Blues, comprised of violinists Jaime Gorgojo and Chihsuan Yang, viola player Rose Armbrust, cellist Jocelyn Butler Shoulders, Bollywood tabla player Kalyan Pathak, and Siegel, on harmonica, piano and vocals.

The program also features seven noteworthy guest artists: Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts, whose composition “Oasis” will be included on the Siegel’s forthcoming More Different Voices, Volume II; vocalist Marcella Detroit, who co-wrote Eric Clapton’s hit “Lay Down Sally” and was part of Shakespears Sister; Chicago singer-storyteller and City Winery mainstay Lynne Jordan; Chicago Klezmer/Yiddish folk song singer Cantor Pavel Roytman, who leads Chamber Blues in a “Hoochie Coochie Man” version of the traditional Jewish hymn “Hine Ma Tove” (lyric:“How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together”); Poi Dog Pondering’s Frank Orrall; Alligator Records blues recording artist Toronzo Cannon; and Tracy Nelson, who wails her Mother Earth classic “Down So Low.”

The clips are tied together by cozy at-home interludes from Siegel.

“It’s home-y,” he says. “I keep remembering that people want companionship, and want to make them feel welcome and bring them inside. It’s not secondary to attending a live concert—it’s all essentially done on an iPhone—but it’s really quite a special thing.”

Indeed, Siegel’s manager/wife Holly shot most of Siegel’s spots with her iPhone 12. The other artists (five Chamber Blues members plus the seven guests) sent in their content, and Siegel then spent five months with Final Cut Pro editing software in assembling the final product.

The finished Extravaganza also features clips (including a delightful Chamber Blues take on Siegel-Schwall’s concert high point “Angel Food Cake”) from the 2016 film Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues Live at Shure, lensed by Emmy Award-winner John Anderson, director of the 2013 blues documentary Born in Chicago and several Brian Wilson/Beach Boys rockumentaries. Three of the 13 videos come from the Shure Studios sessions, with two others lip-synced to tracks from Chamber Blues’ acclaimed 2017 album Different Voices.

“All of the audio was recorded on top-quality equipment, because eight of these works will be part of the next album project, More Different Voices,” says Siegel, noting that like its Different Voices predecessor, More Different Voices will merge the blues-classical music of Chamber Blues with other genres represented by guest artists.

“There’s a tendancy to go, ‘I wish we could do it live,’ but, no, let’s treat this like a different kind of work of art,” he adds, recognizing that the pandemic—or “damn-pandic,” as he calls it—has presented an opportunity for conceiving new performance media.

“Where else are you able to see, on a split screen, all the musicians playing together—and see the expressions on their faces, close-up?"

Siegel notes that he performed full concerts with each of the guests, “meaning I had to write material for each one, and then chose my favorite out of the pieces I did with them.” But he relates that last March 15 (“Beware the Ides of March!”), after a “glorious tour” with Chamber Blues and Ernie Watts, and with more dates scheduled with fellow Chicago harmonica/piano virtuoso Howard Levy, “Mother Nature sent us to our rooms! But we’re artists and arts presenters, and should be looking at what we have and how to be creative, instead of recreate just a shadow of what is past.”

Moreover, any concert staged right now can only be “a poor version, and one that is not completely safe.”

So when presenting organization Chamber Music on the Fox in Elgin, Il. tried to reschedule a postponed concert, Siegel countered with, “Let’s look forward and see how creative we can all be in presenting something different, and find the advantages and inspiration in a new approach to a new format.”

“I recommended we look at the psychology of the need for companionship and create everything with that in mind: Invite people into our individual homes and make them feel welcomed behind-the-scenes, keeping it natural, having fun—and not being afraid. They loved it, and we took our performance fee and used it to produce a video presentation, which they also loved. So Chamber Music on the Fox essentially commissioned and premiered most of the material, with additional support now from donors who are supporting the eventual album [More Different Voices].”

Extravaganza, then, “is an expanded finessed version,” of the Chamber Music on the Fox commission, says Siegel, who has “answered Mother Nature’s call” in exploring pandemic-inspired video-streaming as “a new art-form bringing people close-up companionship with the music makers, and a behind-the-scenes feel for the production through welcoming people into our individual spaces, while they welcome us into their individual homes."

And besides the companionship afforded by Siegel’s new artform is compassion.

“Music itself is in the form of compassion considering all it does to unify, uplift, and heal. But the need for companionship--for the big hug--is why I felt it was necessary to welcome the viewer personally, one on one, into our individual spaces and allow them to welcome us into their homes. This is also why I express in this presentation the advantages of this format and why this could not be replicated on stage and why we call this ’closer than in-person’ And people have responded so enthusiastically, not only to the presentation but to this very concept by commenting, ‘This is even better than a live concert.’”

Siegel has actually been doing live streams twice a week during the pandemic, with his 100th running Friday. But his groundbreaking blues-classical music dates back to the late 1960s and early ’70s, when The Siegel-Schwall Band performed and recorded with maestro Seiji Ozawa, and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.

“When you hear a Chamber Blues piece, you can be assured that every note has been vetted, held up and questioned: ‘How does this feel to me? What if I moved it over to the left, or up, or down, or to the right--how does that feel to me” Where are the goosebumps?’ I absolutely never ask the questions, ‘Does this sound okay? How would this go over? How will this work? How will they like it?’ The point I make, though, is that my process is a trial-and-error step-by-step exploration to squeeze juice out of every phrase for my own pleasure.”

Siegel then returns to “the two-dimensional framework in the up-and-down, right-and-left world where the notes are stuck to the page.”

“Then I start all over again by looking to where the third dimension hides in the far-and-close world of dynamic variation where great expression lives. And then I consider each and every note on the page with the questions like: ‘How does this feel starting from far away and getting closer?, or, How about the reverse--or what if it stays far away?’ It’s like writing the piece all over again, giving attention to how each and every note is treated--how it sings to me, with regards to intensity and expression. And all of this happens while always looking for the blues-classical relationships, some subtle and secret, and others wildly obvious.”

And then, he continues, “we have Kalyan, Jaime, Chihsuan, Rose and Jocelyn, who bring the compositions to life in so many ways. And then we understand that music is about people and about love. And then we have the most treasured guest artists who inspired these arrangements with their songs in the first place!”

Siegel’s Extravaganza will stay up on YouTube for two weeks following its premiere. As for More Different Voices, it will initially release as an eight-song digital release, to be extended in length incrementally as more tunes are completed.



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