By Don Heckman
If you want to start a lengthy argument between two jazz fans, just ask them to offer their definition of jazz singing. And be prepared to be a referee.
But it’s a fair bet that both those hard headed adversaries – had they been at Vitello’s on Friday night — would have found nothing at all to dispute in the performance of Janis Siegel, making a rare solo appearance away from her long term employment with The Manhattan Transfer. Performing with pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Steve Haas, Siegel could do no wrong, whether she was singing a Johnny Mercer standard, an Andy Razaf jump tune, or some poetry by Emily Dickinson set to contemporary song.
It’s no news that Siegel has a remarkable vocal instrument, that her sense of time and phrasing are superb, or that every note she sings is delivered with impeccable musicality. Nearly four decades with the Transfer have both demanded those attributes and given her the opportunity to hone them into essential aspects of her style.
Musical attributes are one thing, however, and what one does with them is something else. Siegel thoroughly affirmed her mastery of groove-driven tunes with her opening version of “Day By Day” following with equally body-moving takes on “The Man I Love” and “Lover.” She sang “Midnight Sun” exquisitely, savoring Johnny Mercer’s remarkable lyrics in her intimate musical storytelling. Shifting gears, she added Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman,” singing its first person story into a tale told from a feminine perspective.
Siegel did all this from what could inarguably be described as an imaginative jazz perspective. When she scatted, she did so in complete sync with a song’s moving harmonies (a skill too rarely heard among many singers); when she sang a ballad, her phrasing honored the linkage between melody, lyrics and story. And, perhaps most intriguing of all, she often improvised in paraphrase fashion, spontaneously inventing melodies, words and rhythms (another rare skill among jazz vocalists).
Give credit to Pasqua, Oles and Haas for providing the musical chariot to carry Siegel through her creative adventures: Pasqua for his rich, empathic clusters of sound; Oles for his always dependable foundation and intimate soloing; and Haas for combining surging rhythms with colorful layers of percussive sound.
By the time Siegel had wrapped her set, any questions regarding the definition of jazz singing had become irrelevant. As Duke Ellington once said, “There’s only two kinds of music, the good kind and the other kind.” In Janis Siegel’s performance it was all the former.
Photos by Bob Barry. To see more of Bob’s photos at his personal site, Jazzography.com, click HERE.