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Janis Siegel: A Thousand Beautiful Things

Janis Siegel
A Thousand Beautiful Things

Janis Siegel has jazz vocal talent that is a mile wide and a hundred fathoms deep. She is in many ways one of today’s most versatile, experienced, and successful jazz singers. At the same time, she’s oddly invisible on the scene.

Siegel’s voice has been the most prominent color in the palette of the Manhattan Transfer for 30 years. The lead singer on the jazz/pop group’s most popular songs (such as “The Boy from New York City”), Seigel has won nine Grammy Awards, and she was the arranger on much of the group’s most challenging material (its classic arrangement of the Weather Report tune “Birdland” and many of the tricky tunes on Vocalese). This kind of success and these kinds of chops can be just what rob a performer of jazz “cred.” For, although Siegel has now made nine diverse solo records as a jazz singer, I bet she would not be on many jazz critics’ list of top-ten jazz singers.

Why not?

Like all the arts, jazz rewards nutty stories and personal singularity. But Siegel is the kind of super-pro singer who’s been singing since she was a teen and who achieved considerable success early on. Born in Brooklyn in 1952, you’d almost say that Siegel was born to her profession. Neither from Canada and married to Elvis Costello (like Diana Krall) nor sired by Ravi Shankar (like Norah Jones), Siegel is just plain good. And unlike the other arts, jazz hates success. All those Manhattan Transfer hits and musical stability plainly rob Siegel of jazz cool.

But what does the music say?

Siegel’s voice is limber, rich, and pitch-sure. It’s occasionally melodramatic in a Barbra Streisand-y kind of way, but it’s also succulent like a great plum. Not typically breathy and intimate, the voice still covers a hundred different emotions. If you want to knock it, you’ve got to complain about it being “too good” or “too rich,” ambling as it sometimes does into pre-rock drama.

But this album — a Latin jazz experiment titled A Thousand Beautiful Things — goes quite a way toward demolishing any “coolness” objections to Siegel’s jazz approach. This is, in fact, a risky and daring album that features a major young jazz soloist, an up-to-the-minute repertoire, and unusual instrumentation. It is the work of a musician who knows what she’s doing, what she wants to do, and the heck with you if your ears aren’t big enough. Which is, in fact, pretty cool.

As a work of Latin jazz, this disc is relatively unique — not a merely a bunch of sambas by Jobim or a group of standards with percussionists ringing in the clave. Siegel, with producer Brian Michel Bacchus, has chosen a collection of contemporary tunes: sturdy pop songs by writers as diverse as Björk, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Nellie McKay, and Stevie Wonder, and then songs written by jazz folk like Fred Hersch and Danilo Perez. The support band is young and brilliant — John Benitez on bass, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Luisito Qunitero on percussion, Edmar Casteneda on Colombian harp, and Steve Hass on drums. The star, however, is Puerto Rican pianist Edsel Gomez, whose 2006 solo album Cubist Music, and whose work with clarinetist Don Byron, has made him one of the finest jazz players in any style today. As a result, these tunes are all given a wholly organic Latin groove in a variety of styles and rhythms.

The achievement of the record is that Siegel is completely integrated with the band — truly a musician rather than a “singer” set off by a band. On McKay’s “Suitcase Song”, for example, Siegel dances through the playful lyrics like Savion Glover working in front of a bebop combo. When the vocal ensemble enters for the chorus, the whole production sounds more like Eddie Palmieri salsa than the Manhattan Transfer. Better still is Siegel’s easy way with “Caramel” by Suzanne Vega. The bassline and percussion lock in beneath the melody, allowing Gomez to play everywhere at once, trading polyrhythms with the harp and then ripping off an astonishing solo that should turn every head in every room. A third of the track is spent in a fabulous overdubbed out-chorus that hands the tune to Siegel as the leader.

But “Caramel” was a Latin tune to begin with. How does the band fare with a tune from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall? (That’s right — you read that correctly.) More jagged certainly than the King of Pop’s version, “I Can’t Help It” combines Siegel’s pop instincts with jabbing Latin groove and a snappy Brian Lynch trumpet solo, capped off by a very cool coro with the band singing in Salsa counterpoint to Janis’s vocal riffing. Annie Lennox wrote the title track, which begins as an impressionistic ballad but becomes a dialogue between the melody and a bed of Latin groove. The Paul Simon tune, “Love” (from the largely overlooked You’re the One), does not sound like Latin jazz, but it is treated to a combination of pop backbeat and a syncopated piano lick that could be from a great Cal Tjader disc.

Not all the tunes fare quite this well. The work by harpist Casteneda is certainly astonishing in technique and coloration, but it rarely feels integrated with the Latin jazz rhythm section. On Björk’s “Hidden Place”, the harp begins the tune in alternation with funky electric bass, and the effect is initially like that of a deliciously off-beat acoustic guitar. But Gomez and the band own the tune on their own and the harp sounds like it is struggling to play in the jazz style of the rest of the band on its solo feature. Casteneda’s solo on “Caramel” is similar, as if he cannot put the band’s hip jazz chords under his fingers with any ease. When he is the only chording instrument, the effect is more as intended. Fred Hersch’s “A Wish” is a lovely knockout with the harp sounding crisply lush and, yeah, jazzy. “Reflecting Light” is a straighter Latin tune, with Casteneda free of the piano and with much more room to operate.

Other quirky choices show courage if not wisdom. On the title track, background singer Marlon Saunders improvises a poetic recitation of “beautiful things” that feels a little too high-school-open-mic-night for its own good. And the solo-voice a cappella of “Till Then” is vocally impressive (restrained, dignified, lovely in tone) but an under-two-minute throw away.

But if you have friends who are jazz vocal fans (or, actually, Latin music fans) and have a birthday coming up, grab A Thousand Beautiful Things for them (or yourself) straight away. Gomez’s playing and the solid Latin work on tunes like “Sweet is the Air” will put Siegel where she belongs: on their radar at last. And when the album finishes with the decidedly lovely duet between Siegel and Gomez on the Erin Moran (of the “band” A Girl Called Eddy) tune “Did You See the Moon Tonight?”, I’m fairly certain your friends will be inspired to play the disc again and again.

RATING 7 / 10