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February 9, 2005

Solo Siegel no less a force

The Pantagraph (IL):

When Janis Siegel last appeared in Bloomington-Normal, she was just one of four. Or, more specifically, she was just one quarter of the Manhattan Transfer, the multiple-Grammy-winning, ultra-chic close harmony group. Well, more than just a quarter -- to put it mildly. Janis Siegel was, and remains, the lead vocalist on some of the Transfer's signature hits, including "Operator," "Twilight Zone," "The Boy From New York City" and "Birdland." In that capacity, her sagging mantel shelf holds a whopping nine Grammy Awards. On her resume, we see an overall tally of 17 Grammy nominations earned over a 30-year stretch (some of those nominations/awards, by the way, were for her role as the group's vocal arranger and songwriter, as well as for her own solo work).

The last time Twin Citians heard Siegel taking the Transfer lead was 14 years ago, in a Christmas show at Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium. For her long-overdue return engagement, she'll open solo for old musical crony David "Fathead" Newman as part of WGLT radio's annual Jazz Masters Concert at 8 p.m. Saturday in the ISU Performing Arts Center Concert Hall. This part-time defection from Manhattan Transfer is nothing new for Siegel, 52, who first began doing solo gigs just two years after the group's classic self-titled 1975 debut album. "They've always been an adjunct to the group," the Brooklyn native says of the solo gigs. "I love singing harmony. That's my deepest love. I like to be part of a bigger thing. I love being part of a chord. And as a harmony singer, you need the special skill to sing a part as if it were the melody, and with the same emotion."

With the Manhattan Transfer, Siegel has the perfect forum for doing just that. Indeed, "to have a group like that is unimaginably gratifying." What's more, "I've always been part of a group -- my earliest musical forays were with a group." The latter occurred at the ripe old age of 12, when she was one-third of an all-girl trio called The Younger Generation. By the time the YG hit high school, they'd actually released two major-label singles, "The Hideaway" and "It's Not Gonna Take Too Long Now." Later, the YG morphed into another group, Laurel Canyon, which thrived into the early '70s. "I've always liked that interaction, the back-and-forth of ideas, that goes on in a group. At its best, it's really kind of a microcosm of the way you wished the world would be," Siegel says. So why the itch to go solo? "As a solo artist," she says, "you get to exercise a whole bunch of other skills, and you also get to collaborate with other artists. And that helps me with the Transfer, because I'm exposed to new ideas and I can cull the best of what I gain from those collaborations and bring them back to the group -- fertilize it with this rich mix of new ideas."

Manhattan Transfer came along for Siegel via the age-old ploy of a chance encounter. Tim Hauser, a taxi driver and aspiring singer, was flagged for a ride by Laurel Canyon's conga player, who then invited the lucky cabbie to a party, where, yes, Siegel was in attendance. Hauser asked her to sing on some demos he'd been working on -- swing-inflected demos that seemed a million miles away from Siegel's origins in the '70s pop-folkie orbit. Then came the invitation for Siegel to join forces with Hauser and two singing partners, Alan Paul and Laurel Masse, and the rest is sophisticated, urbane, flamboyantly attired close-harmony history. "I don't think, in the beginning, it was deemed necessary," notes Siegel of her early itch to go solo, which occurred in 1977, just two year's after the Transfer's smash breakthrough. "For me, though, it was a creative necessity. Playing a certain role in a group can be limiting -- each of us is so much more than what we are as the Transfer."

For a while, Siegel was the only one of the four defecting to solo performances. "It took awhile to assuage the fears that the group would break up as a result," she confesses. "Now, everyone does a fair amount of solo work." Right now, Siegel estimates her performance schedule breaks about evenly between her solo work and the Transfer. Her first-ever European solo tour is in the offing this spring, and a new configuration of the Transfer sound is due in late October via what she calls, "for lack of a better term, an unplugged tour." Siegel defines the latter as "a new kind of representation of the Transfer sound -- we're rearranging and down-scaling things to a cello, piano and percussion (accompaniment), and rearranging our tunes that people like." Because of that alteration, the quartet -- famous for its flashy attire, choreography and production flash -- will be able to play smaller, more intimate venues. "Yes, we were very, very much into the visual aspect of clothing and fashions, and there were three or four different costume changes per show," Siegel says. "But we're too old for that (expletive deleted) now." For her ISU solo performance, things will be even more intimate, if no less musically stimulating, featuring selections from the entire gamut of her eight-album solo catalog (including 1987's Grammy-nominated "At Home"). But, please, expect no Transfer tunes, which live or die by their unique harmony. "No," she agrees, "that wouldn't be very sporting, would it?"

Posted by acapnews at February 9, 2005 12:05 AM