Live Jazz: Janis Siegel at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

Janis Siegel was back at Vitello’s Friday night, a little more than a year since her last gig at the Studio City jazz spot.  And it was a welcome return.  Although her extraordinary vocal skills have been on display for decades with the Manhattan Transfer, her solo performances have been rare – too rare.

She was backed – as she was a year ago – by the flawless support of pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Steve Hass, offering a set of tunes that mixed familiar standards with lesser known, but always compelling material.  The choices were the selections of an ever-curious creative imagination, searching for songs that allowed full rein to her superb interpretive skills.

Siegel opened, for example, with Lorraine Feather’s wryly humorous “I Know the Way to Brooklyn.”  The result was win-win: an opportunity for Siegel to display her sardonic side; and a message to listeners to check out more songs from Feather’s delightful catalog of works.

Another, similarly offbeat selection – “A Small Day Tomorrow” – came from the inimitable Bob Dorough.  And the bruised mercies of Susan Werner’s “I Can’t Be New” was an additional example of Siegel’s ability to find and interpret unusual material from seemingly unlikely sources.  Then, with perfect programming timing, she followed with the classic “This Is New” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin.

Siegel’s equally admirable capacity to find the heart of a standard was on full display with “I Hear Music” – done in unusual fashion as a sultry ballad – and a pair of equally familiar items, “Close Your Eyes” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” performed with the sole accompaniment of Oles’ rich and supple bass sounds.

As if that collection of atmospheric readings wasn’t enough, Siegel also slipped on her scat singing cap from time to time, most notably with “Jeepers Creepers,” a groove-driven “The Man I Love” and a trumpet simulation on “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You.”  And, for once, it was a pleasure to hear a vocalist improvising inventive, swinging scat lines that actually charted the harmonies of a tune, rather than simply skimming the white notes.

Impressive, all of it.  The work of someone who brings so much mastery of craft to everything she sings, that her expressive spotlight can focus, unerringly, upon the music itself.  Like last year’s performance, this was a memorable event.  Let’s hope that another year doesn’t have to pass before Siegel returns with a mesmerizing,  new evening of song for Southland jazz fans.

To check out the iRoM review of Janis Siegel’s 2010 appearance at Vitello’s click HERE.

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