BWW Interview: Janis Siegel Riffs on Her Upcoming Show at 54 Below, Her New CD, and 40 Years of Manhattan Transfer

Interview by Stephen Hanks

While I became a fan of the entire Manhattan Transfer the first time I heard them offer their delicious harmonies on TV in 1975, I fell in love with Janis Siegel’s exquisite alto voice from the moment I heard her do the lead on—what else?—a love song, otherwise known as “Chanson D’Amour” (which was a number one hit for the group in the UK in 1977). So after hearing Siegel over the past couple of years in a Manhattan Transfer gig at the Blue Note, and then with her “girl” group JaLaLa (with former Transfer member Laurel Masse and Lauren Kinhan of the vocal group New York Voices), I was more than a little excited to hear Siegel had been booked for a solo show at 54 Below (this Thursday night at 11pm). It will be the second part of what amounts to a nightclub doubleheader, as earlier in the evening Ann Hampton Callaway will be in the middle of a five night/seven show run of her “Streisand Songbook.” Although the Callaway and Siegel shows on Thursday night are two separate 54 Below admissions (like the style of current baseball doubleheaders), there’s an outside chance audiences might get some added value if these great singers, who are also close friends, decide to appear for a number during each other’s gigs.

I got this potential “scoop” when I recently visited Siegel—who was born in Brooklyn and has lived in Manhattan since 1981—at her West Village digs. The nine-time Grammy winner and 17-time Grammy nominee was still figuring out her 54 Below set list, which should include many songs from her upcoming CD, her first solo studio disc since 2006. Siegel will be jamming in the studio sessions amidst an incredibly busy upcoming schedule. The day after our interview, she would be leaving to perform weekend shows with the Transfer on the West Coast and to do a solo concert in Seattle. Then it’s back to New York for the 54 Below gig and recording the CD. In mid October, Siegel and the Transfer will be performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center before going on a late October Japan tour that takes them to Nagoya and Tokyo. In November, the iconic singing group will be doing six shows in Seattle before coming back to New York late in the month for six shows in three nights at the Blue Note. And in mid-January, Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices and Jon Hendricks, the originator of “Vocalese,” will collaborate for a celebration of Vocalese (the singing form where complex and sophisticated instrumental jazz solos are delivered as melodies with swinging, poetic lyrics) at the Smith Center in Las Vegas.

Forty years after first coming together in 1972, Manhattan Transfer (which in addition to Janis includes Tim Hauser, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne) is still going strong, a major source of pride for Janis Siegel, considered by many music experts to one of the best female jazz singers ever. 

Stephen Hanks: So it’s now 40 years and counting for The Manhattan Transfer. Pretty amazing. There are very few groups that have been around since the 1960s or ‘70s, let alone with almost all their original members [Bentyne replace Laurel Masse in 1978 after Masse was injured in a car accident] still on board.

Janis Siegel: It is pretty incredible. This past year when Cheryl was ill for about eight months we needed to get a substitute soprano and it was the first time in the group’s history that a member was out sick and had to be replaced. Thankfully, Cheryl’s back and in fine health.

SH: So back when you started with the group or even after you became a hit, did you ever think Manhattan Transfer would have this kind of staying power?  (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

JS: Honestly, I didn’t think about it. I just did the work day to day. When it became obvious in the ‘70s that we were going to go beyond New York City, it was pretty exciting. And when it became obvious that we were going to go beyond America that was really exciting. We were popular in France, Germany, and Scandinavia, and we were so popular in England, we were actually thinking of moving there. But when Laurel had to leave the group and Cheryl joined and the Extensions album came out 1979, we really became big in Japan. They liked the more modern sound and they loved songs like “Twilight Zone” and “Birdland.”

SH: You seem really excited about playing the new 54 Below nightclub.

JS: I’m always excited about playing a new room that is amenable to having jazz performers. I’m really doing this for myself to get some of the tunes from the CD under my belt before going into the studio in October. I approached 54 Below because I thought it would be a welcome change to start learning and singing the tunes from the CD during an actual gig. And I love the idea that Ann [Hampton Calloway] is performing the same night. Ann was a member of JaLaLa for about a minute, but she couldn’t commit because she wanted to concentrate on her solo career. Ann and I are friends and I think something is going to happen Thursday night; perhaps we’ll guest in each other’s shows. Whatever she wants to do, I’m game.

SH: So you don’t normally test out new songs in live performance?

JS: No, I usually go into the studio and do first takes to get comfortable with the material, especially when I haven’t done certain songs in the past. But this will be exciting because it’s my first self-produced CD and I’m working really hard on crafting the tunes. I actually enjoy working in the studio even more than doing live performance. It’s magic when you can craft the vocal arrangements in the studio and get it on tape. There’s a certain art to layering in all the vocals. I’ve been doing it for so long and since I’m a harmony singer, it’s pretty easy for me. Then it’s a total rush when you hear the sound come together.

SH: What’s going to be on the new CD?

JS: Some late-night love songs and some Latin grooves which I love and find so romantic. I’ll be doing some Rodgers and Hart and [Antonio Carlos] Jobim songs and a number of songs by contemporary songwriters like Brenda Russell and Janelle Monae. What can I say? I’m into everything.

SH: You started singing at 12 so did you always want to be a professional singer?

JS: Once I got to college age, I thought I had to get serious about a profession so I became a nursing major. Singing was just so easy and fun I felt I had to pick something that was harder like medicine. That lasted about a year [laughs].

SH: How has your voice changed over the years?

JS: I’d never had any voice training until 1980 when I started seriously working on my vocals and that has definitely helped me strengthen my voice. When I listen to myself from the early years, I hear a very fast, tight vibrato, almost anxious. It’s exciting, but it’s very fast. I’m still working with a coach because as I’m growing older, there’s more of a physical element to singing and there are right ways and wrong ways to sing. I need someone to watch me and make sure that I’m not out of the proper alignment, not tensing up anywhere, to make sure that my jaw is loose. I also use my voice teacher as a sounding board for keys and for technique. And the vocal lessons have helped my range get higher, which is rare.

SH: Is there a style of song you like to sing more than any other?

JS: Most people consider me a jazz singer, but my background is pop and now I’m doing more ballads and torch songs. And I love to sing Latin or Brazilian songs. It’s challenging to really be in the pocket with those songs because it’s a different way of feeling rhythm. I’m into having choices and a big repertoire; a suitcase full of voices that I can call up at will. If I want to sing a pop tune, I want to be able to call up that voice and do that style.

SH: You seem to have a ton of stuff on your plate right now. Is there anything else you’re working on?

JS: Well, one thing that is really special and fun is that last summer my Manhattan Transfer partner Alan Paul and I were hired as judges for an American Idol-like online singing competition called “Rock the Web,” which was held in China. We judged the singers online and then went to Beijing for the semi-finals and the finals. The thing that’s cool is that they have an educational component. They bring a bunch of the semi-finalists to Las Vegas for an “academy” where they work with Alan and me on their singing and performance style. We’re going back for the second season next summer.

SH: What songs are the kids in China singing?

JS: What else? Rhianna and Bruno Mars songs [laughs].

Janis Siegel will be performing at 54 Below (at 254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue) on Thursday, September 27 at 11 pm.

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