Skip to page content

 

Over the past three decades, the voice of JANIS SIEGEL - a nine-time Grammy winner and a 17-time Grammy nominee - has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer's diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a member of this 30-year musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned a half dozen finely-crafted solo albums and numerous collaborative projects, amassed a large international fan base, and garnered consistently high critical praise.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1952, Siegel learned about the music business at an early age. By the time she was 12, she was singing with an all-girl pop trio called The Young Generation. By the time she and her bandmates had graduated from high school, they'd released two singles - "The Hideaway" (backed with "Hymn of Love") on Red Bird Records, and "It's Not Gonna Take Too Long" (backed with "Diggin' You") on Kapp Records.

After graduating from high school, the trio shifted from pop to acoustic folk and rechristened themselves Laurel Canyon. Siegel studied nursing for a couple years, but left college in the early '70s to focus all of her energies on Laurel Canyon. But it was a chance encounter that steered her into The Manhattan Transfer.

Tim Hauser was a taxi driver with musical aspirations who happened to pick up Laurel Canyon's conga player one night. The percussionist invited Hauser to a party, where he met Siegel and asked her to sing on some demos he'd been working on. Some of the early swing music that Hauser had been dabbling in was an eye-opener to Siegel, who'd previously been immersed in pop and folk.

Hauser invited Siegel to join a four-part vocal group that he'd been trying to reconstruct (an earlier version of The Transfer with a much different tone and style had existed briefly in the late '60s). When she joined Hauser, Laurel Masse, and Alan Paul, The Manhattan Transfer was born. The group's self-titled debut album in 1975 ushered in a renaissance in vocal-based music and marked the opening chapter of the foursome's quarter-century-plus success story.

In addition to her stage and studio work with The Manhattan Transfer, Siegel launched her solo career in 1982 with the release of Experiment in White - a rare but favorite album among Siegel's fans. Her followup solo effort, At Home, earned her a Grammy nomination in 1987 for Best Female Jazz Vocal.

She collaborated with jazz pianist Fred Hersch on the 1989 effort, Short Stories, which JazzTimes ranked "among the most graceful, thoroughly heartbreaking efforts of the modern era, thanks to her rich, emotive vocals." That same year, the New York Music Awards named her Best Female Jazz Singer. Not one to walk away from a successful formula, Siegel rejoined Hersch in the making of Slow Hot Wind in 1995 and The Tender Trap in 1999.

Through it all, diversity has been a hallmark of Siegel's career. Some of her favorite collaborations over the years have been with Turkish modern classical composer Ilhan Mimaroglu and the Beaux Arts String Quartet in a musical and spoken word project called Like There's Tomorrow, as well as projects with Richie Cole, Jay McShann, Lew Soloff, Robert Kraft, and Leon Ware. She also was a happy participant in A Tribute to the Carpenters on King Records in 1998, sang a duet ("Two For The Blues") with Natalie Cole on Cole's 1996 release, Stardust, and was a featured vocalist on Circlesongs, Bobby McFerrin's multi-layered world/jazz effort of 1997. Siegel has also appeared on a number of motion picture soundtracks (Swing Kids, A League of Their Own, Dick Tracy and others) and performed with classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and the Concordia Orchestra at Alice Tully Hall in 1998.

I Wish You Love, released in 2002, marked her debut on the Telarc label. In some ways, the album also marked a return to Siegel's roots, as it included jazzy renditions of a number of songs conceived in New York's fabled Brill Building, a hotbed of songwriting talent in the early '60s. Her seventh and latest solo recording, Friday Night Special, combines Siegel's rich, emotive vocals with an unusual selection of songs and a first-rate organ/tenor band featuring Joey DeFrancesco on Hammond B-3 and Houston Person on tenor saxophone. Produced by Joel Dorn (who produced Experiment in White and I Wish You Love), Siegel's second Telarc release ranges from soul-jazz and bluesy grooves to funky R&B and romantic ballads.

Siegel - who has made a home in Manhattan with her 8-year-old son, Gabriel, and generally follows her own muse - isn't about to get backed into the hopeless corner of trying to be all things to all people. Some styles are timeless and universal, regardless of prevailing trends. "I think people will always respond to emotion and to great songs sung well," she says. "And I think the vocalists in particular will always be in demand. There's nothing that approximates the human voice. In the end, when you come down to it, people want to feel something."