Janis Siegel, one of the greatest harmony singers of her (or, perhaps, any) generation, once again delights audiences with Sketches of Broadway
, knockin’ ’em dead with the hottest ticket in town. Set for release on April 27, The Manhattan Transfer co-founder’s third Telarc release spotlights stylish readings of Broadway nuggets by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim and others.
"Having never turned to Broadway musical theater as a source of material for a jazz singer, I was overwhelmed by the choices," Siegel says in the liner notes. "Artful music, lushly crafted lyrics, complex and layered stories lay before me, intensely satisfying to my musical palate.
"I did a lot of research," Siegel says. "And looked at a wide range of Broadway material. I wanted to choose songs that would work outside of a theatrical context - great tunes that would work within a jazz framework."
Siegel thinks of this record as the companion to I Wish You Love
(2002), her album of songs from the Brill Building era, because she also grew up listening to Broadway tunes.Sketches of Broadway
sparkles with invention as Siegel puts on a virtuoso display. She provides an intimate counterpoint to her own voice on a reading of Sondheim’s Sorry-Grateful
, creates backup vocals to stunning effect on Arlen and Mercer’s It’s a Womans’ Prerogative
, and again on the sultry medley Out of My Dreams / I have Dreamed
Siegel was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952. She learned about the music business at an early age. By the time she was 12, she was singing with an all-girl pop trio called The Young Generation.
"At that time, I was exclusively listening to pop music," Siegel recalls. "When Motown became popular, I fell head over heels for it, as well as for people like Aretha Franklin. And of course, I went insane over the Beatles. But I also loved Barbra Streisand. And living in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of Broadway shows, too."
On the jazz side, Janis remembers John Coltrane as her musical idol during her high school and college years.
Over the years, her unmistakable voice has become one of The Manhattan Transfer’s most recognizable trademarks. She sang lead on some of the group’s biggest hits, including Operator
, Chanson D’Amour
, Twilight Zone / Twilight Tone
, Ray’s Rockhouse
, Spice of Life
and The Boy From New York City
. She also gained a reputation as a vocal arranger by writing five of the charts for the group’s acclaimed masterwork, Vocalese
, seven charts for the Grammy-winning Brasil
and won a Grammy herself for her arrangement of Weather Report’s Birdland
Although Siegel is best known for her work with The Manhattan Transfer - one of the most popular vocal ensembles in contemporary music - the Brooklyn-born vocalist has also built a successful solo career, beginning with 1982’s Experiment in White
, continuing with 1987’s Grammy-nominated At Home
and including I Wish You Love
.Sketches of Broadway
beautifully showcases Janis’ musical versatility. Whether it’s Broadway show tunes or interesting obscurities, each song sounds newly written in her hands.
One of the more interesting interpretations is Siegel’s delivery of I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night
. Aside from it being a wonderful presentation of voice and instrument, the 3/4 timing is oddly paced - changing tempo ever so slightly, bringing to mind an old 45 record that drags in spots, but without the customary dip in pitch that’s usually a bedfellow of music that drags.
That’s followed by another unique interpretation, the marrying of The Surrey With the Fringe on Top
with Laura Nyro’s Stoned Soul Picnic
, the latter made famous by the 5th Dimension. On this lovely tune, Siegel is backed by The Picnic Triplets.
In an age when buyers and sellers are quick to jam music and musicians into convenient little boxes, Siegel - either as a solo artist or in a group setting - has already built a career on defying preconceptions and stereotypes.
"The question about The Manhattan Transfer was always: ‘Are you a jazz group or a pop group?’" she says. "When we were concentrating on jazz and we had Vocalese
out in 1985, and it was very popular, we were embraced by the jazz purists and jazz radio, but pop radio wouldn’t play us. But then, when we do pop records, oh my God, the jazz people just go to pieces."
Siegel - who has made a home in Manhattan with her son, Gabriel, and generally follows her own muse - isn’t about to get backed into the hopeless corner of trying to be all things to all people. Some styles are timeless and universal, regardless of prevailing trends.
"I think people will always respond to emotion and to great songs sung well," she says. "And I think the vocalists in particular will always be in demand. "There’s nothing that approximates the human voice. In the end, when you come down to it, people want to feel something."
Invariably, when one hears Janis sing - as a soloist or in harmony with The Manhattan Transfer - the listener definitely feels something ....