Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues – More Different Voices
Dawnserly Records 4302
10 songs – 59 minutes
It’s safe to say that no one in the blues world has pushed the boundaries of the blues more in the modern era than Corky Siegel, the Chicago blues harmonica giant who’s been teaming with classical orchestras since the ‘60s and producing a hybrid sound derived from the intersections of the Delta, classical, folk, jazz and more. And he absolutely hits it out of the park with this disc, which teams him with a string quartet, blues artists and musicians who literally span the globe.
Corky’s seventh mixed-media release, he joins forces here with Alligator Records powerhouse Toronzo Cannon, country blues superstar Tracy Nelson and blues/jazz diva Lynne Jordan on this one. It’s a delightful, surprise-packed follow-up to his 2017 release, Different Voices, which featured tabla master Sandeep Das along with vocalists Marcella Detroit and Siegel’s longtime friend/bandmate Sam Lay and jazz saxophone great Ernie Watts.
A skilled composer who grew up playing sax and is a gifted keyboard player, too, Corky rose to prominence as co-founder of the Siegel-Schwall Band, which started as the house band at Pepper’s Lounge and quickly became one of the first white-led blues groups of the mid-‘60s. Siegel’s forays into classical music came after befriending San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa during frequent visits to the city and Ozawa subsequently invited the group to the Bay Area in 1968 to record William Russo’s “Three Pieces For Blues Band And Symphony Orchestra.”
Shockingly revolutionary and well-reviewed, the performance was released on LP by the Deutsch Grammophon imprint as Street Music: A Blues Concerto in 1977, joining Seigel’s previous azure releases on Vanguard and Wooden Nickel and serving as a jumping-off point for the six more discs using the concept that he’s released prior to this one.
The musicians on his one includes Spanish violinist Jaime Gorgojo, Taiwanese violinist Chihsuan Yang and Americans Rose Armbrust on viola and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders on cello along with Indian tabla virtuoso Kalyan “Johnny Bongo” Pathak while the voices include Cannon, Detroit, Nelson, Watts, Hawaii-based Pio Dog Pondering front man Frank Orrall and Pavel Roytman, a Jewish-American cantor based out of Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Lisa Wurman and Katherine Hughes (violin), Richard Halajian (viola) and Felix Wurman (cello) provide the backbone as guests on the closing bonus track.
Originally charted in 1973, this is Siegel’s fourth arrangement of “No One’s Got Them Like I Do,” which opens. The strings serve as the classical/blues band in counterpoint to Corky’s harp riffs as Lynne deliver lyrics about a man so enamored by a woman, “she sends chills down his spine” and so downtrodden by her rejection that he’s now “cryin’ in his wine.” But Jordan – dead serious — isn’t impressed because “no one has troubles like I do” – something that Siegel drives home bittersweetly on the reeds mid-song.
Blues fans will recognize “Insurance” because it originally appeared on Toronzo’s The Preacher, the Politician or the Pimp CD but they’ve never heard it like he sings it here with the strings substituting for his powerhouse guitar aided by Corky’s fills and Johnny Bongo’s bottom. Up next, Marcella soars on mic and chips in a little harp, too, for a take on her original, “There Goes My Man.” From its operatic/symphonic open, it eventually settles into a funky shuffle as it describes a love exiting for the final time.
Orrall takes the spotlight next for a reimagining of his “Little Blossoms Falling Down,” a quiet but minor-key pleaser with percussive Latin rhythms that celebrates finding joy in all of the beauty in the world despite all of its troubles before Siegel gets to rip and run in his instrumental, “Joyful Jambalaya,” a romp that includes a few Sonny Terry-style whoops and gives space for Yang to shine on violins and electric viola.
The ensemble delivers music from the intersection of jazz and blues as Watts takes center stage to deliver the sweet, ten-minute instrumental “Oasis,” which includes sensational interplay between his horn, tabla, harp and the strings, before Corky’s at the mic for “Twisted,” a Siegel-Schwall original that’s now loaded with classical elements, and Nelson stars on voice and piano for her “Down So Low.”
Two more numbers — Roytman’s “Hine Ma Tov Blues,” a variation of a simple Jewish chant that sings for peace and was recorded long before war broke out in his homeland, and “Penguins in the Opera House,” which includes a poem Siegel penned for children and music by Austrian composer/Holocaust survivor Hans Wurman — bring the album to an interesting close.
Extremely interesting throughout, not as high-brow as you might imagine – and strongly recommended for anyone with an ear open to something different.