Several of Janis Siegel's earlier solo releases away from the Manhattan Transfer have covered both pop material as well as typical jazz standards, but this outing is far more pop than usual. The goal of transforming pop material not usually covered by jazz artists into viable jazz is, for the most part, successful. Siegel has always proved herself as a singer who gives her all, and this release is no exception. Also, there are a number of fine musicians present, including a rhythm section anchored by veteran pianist Cedar Walton (with bassist David Williams and drummer Winard Harper), as well as guest appearances by flugelhornist and trumpeter Tom Harrell and tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. The most successful numbers include a memorable tribute to the late Etta Jones, singing her big hit "Don't Go to Strangers"; a warm, very relaxed medley interweaving "Mr. Sandman" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me"; and a sensational duet of the bittersweet "Guess Who I Saw Today?" with Walton. On some tracks, there's an unfortunate tendency toward overproduction, with occasionally excessive backing vocals overdubbed into the mix, especially in an otherwise very appealing rendition of "Just a Little Lovin'," Jon Hendricks' "I Want You to Be My Baby," and "I Wish You Love," where Siegel's voice is also added to the background. And at least one song, "Go Away Little Boy" (also known as "Go Away Little Girl"), is a resounding dud. These reservations should not detract Janis Siegel's fans from picking up this risk-taking CD, as the spirit of adventure and strong musicianship of everyone involved in the date make it well-worth acquiring.
- Ken Dryden (All Music Guide)
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Janis Siegel's latest solo effort may evoke a slew of memories. Each of the songs she has chosen have come to be identified with a female vocalist, and most were hits of varying degree. Some were even among Siegel's earlist pop favorites. Yet this program is more a voyage of self-discovery than an exercise in nostalgia. It also illustrates how great singers can renew great songs, giving them a personal stamp that makes the most venerable material contemporary.
Siegel had something different in mind when she began to create this disc. A friend had suggested an album in which a jazz spin would be given to pop hits from the Brill Building era of the '50s and '60s-a concept that, at first blush, could not have been more natural for this founding member of The Manhattan Transfer. "If I come from anywhere, I come from that Brill Building environment," Siegel admits, and then recalls working at age twelve in a girl group called The Young Generation, which did its studio sessions for Red Bird Records in said edifice at 1619 Broadway and was managed out of 1650 Broadway down the street. The great song-writing teams of the era were housed in nearby offices. Siegel did not have to look too far afield to recall such gems as "Mr. Sandman," one of the first singles she ever bought, and "Just a Little Lovin'," made famous by Siegel favorite Dusty Springfield.
When Siegel gave the notion more thought, though, she discovered that such material alone could not comprise a true jazz album. As her producer Joel Dorn puts it, "Janis needed real songs. She isn't there to sing ditties." Three decades of singing with jazz's most popular vocal group had made. Siegel a jazz singer, despite her initial pop and folkrock allegiances. "For a long time, jazz was just a private passion of mine," she explains, "especially the Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders records I listened to in college. It was only when I joined The Transfer that I seriously investigated all of the jazz that came before."
Dorn, who produced Siegel's solo debut Experiment in White for Atlantic twenty years ago, suggested that music of the period by female composers, and jazz vocals that had legitimately crossed over to the pop charts, would present a more complete portrait of the artist. That kept the likes of "The Big Hurt" in the mix while also making room for "Don't Go to Strangers" and "The Late Late Show." "Only then," Siegel says, "did we realize that these songs are all associated with female singers."
This inspired mix of music suggested an instrumental approach built around what artist and producer describe as a "nightclub trio." "You know, the way Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson and Etta Jones and even Aretha Franklin used to do it on the road," in Dorn's words. We do know, and we also know that no ensemble is better prepared for this kind of assignment than the working band of pianist Cedar Walton, as supportive a threesome as could be desired. For eloquent solo voices, trumpeter Tom Harrell, vibist Bill Ware and tenor saxophonist/flutist David Newman were similarly impeccable choices. All turn in soul-baring performances, but the venerable Newman, who made his mark professionally Grafting similar interludes on Ray Charles' early hits, shows with particular clarity why he is considered second to none when it comes to playing with singers. "Wow!" is Siegel's initial response to Newman's contributions. "He did his' Masquerade' solo at a point in the day where he had to leave to catch the bus back to his home in Woodstock. I don't know if he made his bus, but he sure made that solo."
That interlude is but one highlight in a program that ranges from "Mr. Sandman" transformed as a ballad (with a "Dream a Little Dream of Me" interlude) to a kicking version of "I Want You to Be My Baby" (credited to lyricist Jon Hendricks and its truck-driving, trombone-playing original vocalist, Lillian Briggs). And pay special attention to "Guess Who I Saw Today," which also appeared on Siegel's aforementioned debut album. "I wanted another crack at it, because my emotional pallette was not as wide then," she explains; and Dorn, who also produced the earlier version and thought Siegel did an admirable job for a young singer, admits that her reprise with only Walton in support is the best gauge of her current command. "But then she's got such great range," he quickly adds. "How many singers have the intelligence and humor to interpret 'The Big Hurt' this way? Or to sing 'Just a Little Lovin' like they were being kicked by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones?"
Such diversity is not purchased at the price of Siegel's individuality. Her sound is her own, strong yet intimate, and the tracks where she is joined by other voices suggest that, while you can take Siegel out of The Manhattan Transfer, you can't completely take The Transfer out of Siegel. "Harmony -singing it and writing it- is probably my greatest love," she explains. "I 'heard voices' right away on 'Mr. Sandman' and the beginning of "I Wish You Love." Yet even the echoes of her more familiar surroundings contribute to this revealing self-portrait. "This is a complete expression of my aesthetic," she stresses. "In The Transfer we make room for each other and hope that the whole will exceed the sum of its parts. Each of us has a role, and none of us can do everything. Which is fine, but it's not my complete expression. That's why I do solo projects."
Another reason is to obtain the revelations Siegel encountered in her latest solo adventure. "Songs can suprise you sometimes. It's like that old line about 'How do I know what I'm thinking until I hear what I say?' I didn't know that a song like 'Go Away Little Boy' could take on such significance. I had never heard 'Don't Go to Strangers' before, but it moved me so much that I can tell it will become a staple of my repertoire.
"Ultimately, you have to filter any song through your own emotional experience, which is what makes it relevant today. That's one of the fantastic things about recording an album. It's like a trip, and sometims it's an unexpected trip."
Which is why it never hurts to have someone at the wheel who can navigate the unanticipated curves, and who finds alternate routes where the scenery is the most compelling. So leave the choices, and the driving, to Janis Siegel.
- Bob Blumenthal