Chamber Mates

Corky Siegel links the ethereal majesty of chamber music with the grit of the blues

Corky Siegel tends to choose his words carefully.
For instance, when asked for his opinion of other artists, like himself, who've made the leap from popular to classical music, the Chicago native judiciously avoids any critiques because he thinks that such talk is detrimental to his own creative flow. And if you inquire about the artistic choices that helped him create his quirky hybrid of blues and chamber music, he'll stop and start, reframing each answer with all the deliberation of a politician under oath.

Siegel's extreme care with the English language is more than slightly ironic, because as a musician he prides himself on being impetuous, someone who trusts instinct over intellect. A respected blues pianist and harmonica player who earned a devoted cult following with the Siegel-Schwall band, Siegel stepped into the classical realm by accident, but he's boldly assumed that he's the master of his chosen form, and his work shows none of the tentative lurching of other latecomers to classical music. Siegel doesn't credit himself with breaking down musical boundaries, because he doesn't recognize that such boundaries exist. He insists that other musicians increasingly share this view.

"The difference between one form of music and another form of music isn't so much of a problem anymore with musicians," Siegel says. "I think musicians are very open, especially classical musicians, because they've been playing the same music for a long time and they're looking for something that's different but not avant-garde. Between the great masters of tonal music and the great masters of avant-garde music, there's this big territory that hasn't been explored a whole lot. So, I think when they get to play something that's different, they love playing new stuff."

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In the mid-'60s, Siegel met an aspiring blues guitarist named Jim Schwall at Roosevelt University, and they quickly decided to put together a repertoire of blues standards and originals. Before assembling the lineup of the Siegel-Schwall Band, the duo served an apprenticeship at the legendary Chicago club Peppers Show Lounge. Peppers was known for attracting blues heavyweights, who came by to sit in with the house band on Thursday nights. Siegel says on the first performing date of his career, Hound Dog Taylor, James Cotton, and Little Walter all dropped by to jam. On his second night, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, and Muddy Waters sat in. "I'm jamming continuously with these blues masters, and I'm just learning how to play," Siegel recalls with more than a trace of disbelief.

Soon Siegel and Schwall were jamming with their own band on the north side of Chicago. Much as he admired Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, Siegel says it didn't take long for him to realize that he could never match these titans, and that there was no point in imitating them. So he concentrated on interpretation. As he puts it, "Even our straight-ahead blues had a lot of twists in it."

One avid follower of the Siegel-Schwall Band approached Siegel after a Chicago gig and said he wanted his band to jam with Siegel's band. The fan was Seiji Ozawa, and his "band" was the Chicago Symphony. Ozawa felt that the world of classical music had become too staid and needed an infusion of fresh ideas. So he encouraged Siegel-Schwall to join the Chicago Symphony for a 1968 concert performance of William Russo's "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra."

After Siegel-Schwall disbanded in 1974, Ozawa continued to foster Siegel's interest in classical music. Finally, in 1983, while developing music for Chicago's Grant Park Symphony, a light bulb appeared over his head: What if he combined the sublime intimacy of a string quartet with the earthy emotionalism of blues harmonica? The result is chamber blues, a concept somewhat gimmicky in theory, but perfectly organic in practice. Amazingly, for someone with no classical training, Siegel has adapted with great skill to the composing demands of a string quartet. In fact, his compositions tilt much more in the classical direction than to his blues roots. The percussive addition of an Indian tabla adds a world-beat flavor and transports the music into a realm utterly distinct from its individual parts.

"When you blend or juxtapose two forms of music, you're gaining one thing and losing another thing," Siegel says. "Even if you play a song on a guitar and add a flute, you're gaining the color of the flute, but losing some of the intimacy of the guitar. So I always look at whether what I'm going to gain is worth what might be lost in the mix--whether mixing a record or mixing genres. Of course, the decision here was that it was well worth it, and I could list many, many reasons both artistically, socially and politically."

The primary justification for Siegel is that his chamber-blues work has bridged two audiences that would rarely cross paths otherwise.

"In L.A., there were motorcycle gang people there, 'cause they were old Siegel-Schwall fans," he says, with obvious delight in his voice. "At the end of the concert, they were actually writing down the names of classical composers that they were gonna listen to."

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