Written by Grant Jackson from NPR
Janis Siegel has been a member of the seminal vocal group The Manhattan Transfer for 30-plus years. Along the way, the group has recorded more than 20 albums and collected eight Grammy Awards, and Siegel also has nine solo albums under her belt. On this installment of Piano Jazz, she sings tunes penned by, among others, Billy Strayhorn, Steven Sondheim and Annie Lennox, joined by accompanist Gil Goldstein on piano and accordion
The session kicks off with Sondheim’s “The Story of Lucy and Jesse,” from the musical Follies. Siegel sings this tale of two unhappy women longing to trade places in an uptempo style, and she finishes the tune by scatting over Gil Goldstein’s accompaniment.
“That is some song,” says Marian McPartland, “You’ve seen the show, I guess?”
Siegel admits to never having seen Follies.
“But that piece in particular struck me as a kind of vocalise,” Siegel says. “It’s almost the kind of wordplay that Jon Hendricks might use. I’ve had quite a bit of practice with that in The Manhattan Transfer.”
Siegel remembers Ahmet Ertegun, of Atlantic Records fame, arranging for The Manhattan Transfer to fill in for Bobby Short at the Carlyle Hotel in New York in the mid-1970s.
And the roots of this Piano Jazz session stretch back to that gig, as well, as McPartland recalls during a recent conversation about the session.
“I was playing in the famed Bemelmans Bar, and I used to hear The Manhattan Transfer playing in the main room at the Carlyle. I would go across the hall to hear them,” McPartland says.
The session continues as Siegel and Goldstein swing toward the jazz side of things with the ballad “Whatever Possessed Me,” by Tadd Dameron and Bernard Hanighen. Siegel’s vocal recalls the lyrical Chet Baker, who recorded the tune in the mid-1960s, and she leaves room for a piano solo by Goldstein at the bridge. They bring the pace back up with “I Know the Way to Brooklyn,” before a poignant arrangement of “Make Someone Happy.”
“That’s so quiet, sort of Satie-like,” McPartland says.
Breaking Out The Accordion
The next tune features an instrument new to Piano Jazz, as Gil Goldstein pulls out his accordion for a Montmartre-flavored duet with host McPartland on “Prelude to a Kiss.” Not a usual fan of the accordion, McPartland says, “I had a ball doing that.”
Next, Siegel and McPartland duet on the Billy Strayhorn tune “Lotus Blossom,” but with an alternate lyric from the composer, titled “All Roads Lead Back to You.”
Siegel flashes forward with a wee-small-hours arrangement of the 2003 pop tune “A Thousand Beautiful Things,” by Annie Lennox. The intimate duet, with Goldstein on the accordion, takes on the effect of a Parisian chanteuse’s song of longing during the German occupation. Siegel has recorded an album featuring jazz versions of songs by women of the contemporary pop vanguard, including Lennox, Bjork and Suzanne Vega.
To end the show, Seigel and McPartland get together on one more Duke Ellington tune, “I Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues.” Siegel is at ease and has fun belting out the soulful lyric, with easygoing yet swinging piano accompaniment by McPartland.
“It’s great to hear all those tunes written by women on the show,” McPartland says, reflecting on the show. “It’s so wonderful that Janis was able to do that.”
And it certainly is great hearing these two talented women together.
Originally recorded Oct. 17, 2006. Originally broadcast on April 20, 2007.