Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chicago harmonica player Corky Siegel explores new voices on latest album, will perform at Elgin Community College

Photo by Stephanie Bassos


By ERIC SCHELKOPF

Internationally renowned blues harmonica player Corky Siegel learned his craft at the feet of such blues masters as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Sam Lay.

Lay is one of the guest musicians on the Chicago native's latest album, "Different Voices," set for release on April 7. The album is the first for Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues since 2005.

Lay, jazz saxophone player and Grammy Award winner Ernie Watts, Indian tabla master Sandeep Das, beat boxer Matthew Santos and Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong make appearances on the album, along with Marcy Levy, who sings her hit "Lay Down Sally,"  which she co-wrote with Eric Clapton.

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues will perform at 7 p.m April 8 at Elgin Community College's Arts Center, 1700 Spartan Drive, Elgin. The show will also feature the Elgin Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Tickets are available at Elgin Community College's website, http://elgin.edu.

I had the chance to talk to Siegel about the new album. 


Q - This is your first album since 2005's "Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show!" What took so long? Any pressure to do the album?

Well, I took my time, didn't I? I've never been pressured about that kind of stuff.

I was always working on it, since 2005. I want to make sure that when I release an album, I'm happy with it. 

Q - Beyond that, did you have any goals for the album? And do you think you accomplished them?

The goal for the album was to dig deep into my soul and find out what I'm supposed to do, and then do it.

Q - That's great that somebody who has been doing this for so long still wants to explore more.


Absolutely. I'm still trying to find out what I like. When I was on tour with Bob Hope for six days, I said to him, "Bob, I'm really disturbed about professional musicians saying that you're supposed to read your audience, that you're supposed to know your audience." I told him that made no sense to me.

He told me a story where he showed up for a performance really late. He started telling his jokes and he was bombing. There were few giggles here and there, but that was it.

So he cut his show short, he gets into his limousine to go back to his hotel, when he realizes that this was an event for people who couldn't speak. They were mute. So he said, "Corky, never try to read your audience."

I told him that I'm still working on reading myself. How could I look at thousands of people and read them? So he reinforced my understanding that we're here, we're individuals and we need to find out who we are and what have to offer and just offer that and be fearless about it. That's the arts.

That doesn't mean that we should try to create something that's difficult for people to understand to show how fearless we are. As far as I am concerned, somebody could be inspired to copy another artist, and if that's what they are inspired to do, that's what they should do.

So whatever is, let's say extremely interesting about "Different Voices," I didn't do that because I wanted it to be weird. I just did it because that's honestly 50 years of working on trying to find out what's in here, and offering that without worrying about what anyone else is going to think about it.

Q I know you formed Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues in 1987. But I understand that you were intrigued about putting together chamber music and the blues back in 1966. What intrigued you about the idea?

In 1966, I had just come out of a residency with all the blues masters (including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy and Sam Lay). I just came out of that whole, incredible profound experience that I didn't even know the value of when I was experiencing it. 

Looking back, it's pretty mind blowing that we were the center of attention and all these blues masters took us under their wing. Howlin' Wolf was more of a mentor more directly than anyone else.


He'd knock on my door in New York City every morning, and we'd take these walks. He loved my band Siegel-Schwall, and he wanted to tour with us, so one time he took us on tour. 

Siegel-Schwall was not praised by our contemporaries, but Wolf and Muddy did like it because they saw we were trying to do something original. Which wasn't exactly correct. I was trying to sound just like Howlin' Wolf. It didn't work. That was not going to happen.

This guy comes in night after night, and he's a big fan. And one night, he comes up to me, and he says, "Corky, I'd like your band to jam with my band." His band was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and that was Seiji Ozawa.

So it was Seiji who was inspired with the idea of bringing the spark of blues to classical music. And he basically crowned me as the person to do it. 

And I was just going along with. As I tell the music people, Chamber Blues was neither my idea nor my fault. I didn't pursue it, but it pursued me, and I started getting offers to compose for symphonies. 

At some point, I really fell in love with Seiji's idea. I had to do it. I decided to do it in a chamber music setting, because a symphony wouldn't fit on a bus.

It happened right during the time when all the electronic, synthesizer music was really, really popular. And I really moved to do something very, very acoustic and pure.

Q - Do you see this album as being the pinnacle of what Chamber Blues can do?

Yes. I really feel this is a culmination. 


If you look at the compositions, there is a juxtaposition happening where both idioms maintain their characters, but they are working together. That's the concept of Chamber Blues.

It's not always happening in the music, but it is the focus, it is the direction that it's always going, to have these two elements that seem like opposites working together.

Q - Did you hand pick the guest artists on this album? 

All of them have been in guest artists with Chamber Blues in live performances. The first one, I believe if I am correct, was Marcy Levy, Marcella Detroit. I wrote an arrangement of "Lay Down Sally," and then I wrote an arrangement of a whole bunch of other stuff that she wrote.

And then she performed with Chamber Blues. So we had sort of the Chamber Blues thing going, but we also had a little bit of that R&B thing going. 


This isn't just bringing somebody in to do an album. We actually perform together, and we perform a full repertoire of their own material with Chamber Blues. It was just sort of a natural progression to have some of these guest artists on an album.

But it was also a natural progression that I've done five recorded projects juxtaposing blues and classical music and not bringing in specifically another element.

So it was time to bring in another element, and it was time to bring in a guest artist. And so it was just a natural progression, which is pretty much how I experience my musical life.

This wave came, I hopped on the wave, and I've been riding on it ever since.

Q - And blues legend Sam Lay is on the album. And he's still going at it in his 80s. Is he kind of any inspiration to you?

That's an understatement. He just exuded this incredible energy. The band (Paul Butterfield Blues Band) was tight, and Sam was this powerful engine. It wasn't like he was playing loud. It was like he was playing with an intensity.


And I swear, I've never heard another blues drummer do that, not like Sam. Sam doesn't play the drums, he sings the drums. 

Q - Are you happy with how the album turned out?

Happy isn't the word. I don't think there's a word. The word is that it's perfect.

It's absolute perfection. 

Q - So it's time for you to retire, after experiencing absolute perfection?

Yeah, what is there left to do? I'm really happy to tell you that it's perfect. Even with the errors.

This is extremely spontaneous. And I have learned over the years to love the unintentional. 

There's a balance. You look for that balance, where you don't lose the passion and excitement and the energy. 

Over my 50 years of performing, I've seen what music does to people, how it uplifts people and brings people together.


Well, it's the musical elements that have all this power. When we love a particular type of music like jazz, what is holding our attention and carrying us away? It's sort of these musical elements.

I get to arrange and manipulate the musical elements to my liking. It's sort of like making a sculpture out of gold and then looking at the sculpture and saying, "Wow, look at the luster."

But the luster is in the gold. You could shape it any way you want, and the luster is going to be there. 

I really look at music that way. And I feel grateful and honored to be able to do this.