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The Graham Album Review #1904

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Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues: Different Voices
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/12/2017)

Just because classical and rock & roll are so seemingly different from each other, there has been a long history of trying to mix the genres going back to the 1960s with groups like the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble and then the Beatles and the classical elements they added to their music. The project range from rock versions of classical pieces to using classical instrumentation and arrangements to perform rock tunes. And there was the art rock scene that brought in elements of both.

This week we have a new recording by someone who has been involved with mixing classical with in this case blues, for over 50 years now, and it still sounds like fun. It’s Corky Siegel’s Chamber blues, and the new recording is called Different Voices. As Corky Siegel points out in the album’s liner notes that he feels extremely lucky to have met and played with some of the blues greats like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in Chicago, where Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall formed the Siegel-Schwall Band in 1965. They became the house band at a South Side Chicago club called Pepper’s Lounge where they backed up Waters and Wolf, along with Buddy Guy, Little Walter and many others. The Siegel-Schwall Band’s 1966 debut album attracted a fair amount of national attention. That same year, then Chicago Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Seiji Ozawa approached the band about doing a joint work. Composer William Russo created Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra which was released by the classical label Deutsche Grammophon in 1973, and became a classical crossover favorite. While the Siegel-Schwall Band reformed for a while after initially breaking up, and Siegel has done some other blues recordings, Chamber Blues has been an ongoing project for Siegel. He has been commissioned to write works for his blues harmonica and orchestras, and has toured with trumpet man and band leader Doc Severinson doing symphonic collaborations.

Chamber Blues consists of a traditional string quartet, Corky Siegel’s blues harmonica and percussion, usually from an Indian tabla. Much of the material tends to be instrumental, with with the contrast in sounds coming together in Chamber Blues’ music.

It has been 12 years since the last Chamber Blues album, which was a live recording, but now Siegel is out with Different Voices, which as you might expect, involves some guests beyond the Siegel’s eclectic gathering. They include jazz sax great Ernie Watts, and pop singer-songwriter Matthew Santos. Also appearing is Marcy Levy, who co-wrote the Eric Clapton hit Lay Down Sally. She performs the song with the quirky backing of the Chamber Blues Group. From the more conventional blues world is Sam Lay, who played regularly with the reunion version of the Siegel-Schwall band. And while the music is quite eclectic, it’s done in a lighthearted spirit.

The generous album begins with an instrumental in Siegel’s numbered opus series, Missing Persons Blues, Opus 26. The guest on the track is acclaimed jazz tenor sax man Ernie Watts. The tune is a straight ahead slow blues but given the distinctive sonic colors of the string quartet with Watts’ soulful sax work. <<>>

The first of the guest vocals is a piece called One, with Matthew Santos appearing on this original tune by Siegel. Lyrically it’s a distinctive love song, and musically it has a bit of a tango quality to it. It’s another pleasant bit of whimsical eclecticism. <<>>

The album includes a version of the Eric Clapton hit Lay Down Sally, which features the lead vocal by Marcy Levy who co-wrote the song with Clapton. Needless to say, the arrangement here with the string quartet, tabla and blues harmonica is quite a contrast from Clapton’s version. It’s also taken in a spirit of good fun. <<>>

Siegel and his Chamber Blues groups have occasionally revisited songs that were part of the Siegel-Schwall Band’s repertoire. This album includes Angel Food Cake which the band did in 1969. The lyrics make it a bit of a novelty song, and Siegel’s great blues harmonica work floats above the string quartet playing melodic lines that sound classical at times, all the while, there is a kind of Indian undercurrent thanks to the tabla drums. <<>>

The album includes a distinctive version of the old spiritual I’ll Fly Away, with the Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong appearing on the track. It’s another clever bit of stylistic juxtaposition. <<>>

Veteran Chicago bluesman Sam Lay, who had played with the Siegel Schwall Band appears on a track which is a medley of an original piece by Siegel called Italian Shuffle with the blues standard Flip, Flop and Fly. When Lay comes in, the arrangement slips into something more conventionally blues, if a string quartet can be considered in any way conventional. <<>>

One of the most distinctive of the instrumental tracks is a short piece called Galloping Horses in which one of the string quartet’s violinists Chihsuan Yang plays an Asian two-string instrument called the Erhu, with Matthew Santos doing some verbal beatbox percussion. It’s quite clever and once pulls off a fun musical dichotomy. <<>>

The album ends with a Siegel original called The Sky Will Fall, which was mostly written in 1975, but seems relevant today with the resurgence of intolerance. In this case, the instrumentation seems to fit the lyrics very nicely. <<>>

Different Voices, the new album from Corky Siegel’s Chamber blues, the first in 12 years, continues the entertaining and often charming mixture of blues harmonica with a classical string quartet, often featuring Indian tabla. While the previous Chamber Blues albums were mostly self-contained, this one has a number of interesting guests, making the music even more wide-ranging and fun. The compositions are enjoyable, though sometimes melodically they fall into predictable patterns. But overall it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Our grade for sound quality is an “A.” Just about everything was done right. The string quarter is more closely miked than traditional classical music recordings, but this is not a conventional classical music recording. The dynamic range, how well the music’s ebb and flow of loudness is preserved, is commendable.

Corky Siegel has been mixing classical and blues for 50 years now, and he shows no signs of slowing down. His new album maintains the spirit of fun eclecticism that has marked his projects over the years. Whether you are are familiar with his past work or not, most people with open ears will find this album quite charming.

(c) Copyright 2017 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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