Janis Siegel has been the member of Manhattan Transfer to branch out most often into individual projects as she follows her own muse in imaginative duo projects with Fred Hersch or enlivening the sound tracks of movies like Swing Kids
or working with the ever-inventive Bobby McFerrin. Now, she builds upon her nascent Telarc discography by recording an album of songs inspired by Broadway musicals. The choices she makes, as explained in her literate comments in the CD’s liner notes, involve attention to the wordplay, astute descriptions, conflicted emotions and self-contained completeness of the lyrics, as if the songs were glittering short stories contained within the plays’ books. And so, after Siegel had boiled down the ever-growing universe of choices to a select eleven featured on the project, it happened that most of the songs are undiscovered gems awaiting a slight polishing by a singer / "gemologist" for their brilliance to become evident to everyone else as well.
For instance, who recognizes the song title of "The Story of Lucy and Jessie" (from Follies
)? But typical of Stephen Sondheim’s work, the lyrics form a story evoking succinct description through the use of densely packed rhymes, as does another of his ingeniously written songs, "I Remember Sky." Just as important, the attitude of the song falls entirely within the spirit of much of Siegel’s singing, full of spunk and wonder at the possibilities of the story she sings. Who can resist lyrics like these, which, in the end, form a complete description of Lucy and Jessie’s relationship? "Lucy’s a lassie/You pat on the head./Jessie is classy/But virtually dead./Lucy wants to be classy./Jessie wants to be lassie./If Lucy and Jessie/Could only combine,/I could tell you someone/Who would finally be just fine." Or there’s the lack of irresolution of desire, expressed through from "Sorry-Grateful" (from Company
): "You’re scared he’s starting/To drift away.... /And scared he’ll stay./You’re sorry-grateful./Regretful-happy./Why look for answers/When none occur?/You always are/What you’ve always been./Which has nothing to do.... /All to do with him." Siegel finds comical truths in "It’s a Woman’s Prerogative" (from Harold Arlen’s and Johnny Mandel’s St. Louis Woman,
) and she delivers them with a melodic chattering and force-of-idea assertion, reminiscent of some of her upper-register work with Manhattan Transfer on, say, "Twilight Zone." Moreover, the contrast between the Latin sway of "Sorry-Grateful," marked by flamenco-like handclaps, and "It’s a Woman’s Prerogative’s" haunting electronic rhythm-section backup, highlighting her odd intervals and leaps of octaves, shows the aptness of including in the session Gil Goldstein and bassist John Patitucci, who can go both acoustic and electronic with consummate ease.
In fact, members of the group backing up Siegel have years of experience working with singers, and that experience shows in the lyrical technique of guitarist Romero Lubambo (accompanied Dianne Reeves) and vibraphonist Stefon Harris (worked with Abby Lincoln). Siegel and keyboardist/arranger Gil Goldstein slice by slice sandwiched the already-whimsical "Surrey with the Fringe on Top" (from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
) and Laura Nyro’s "Stoned Soul Picnic" for a eureka-like result. The combination of tunes not only is complementary in nature, but also they form an opportunity to insert a countering motif that brings out harmonic extensions from tunes that normally are sung with constraining adherence to the arrangements from the original Broadway productions.
In the end, considering the overwhelming plentitude of musical material originating from Broadway productions, the title of Janis Siegel’s CD, Sketches of Broadway,
(ignoring the pun) is apt in itself because even as she mines the riches of the songs, they represent an outlining of the variety of music to be discovered. The entire portrait of Broadway itself is filled in with each new discovery heard, hopefully by singers as devoted to the possibilities of the music as Siegel.