Chamber Mates

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

Siegel also tells of a concert his ensemble was scheduled to play in the Virgin Islands at St. Thomas where the presenter was nervous about whether chamber blues would be accepted in this purely classical setting. Audience response was so enthusiastic that the presenter not only asked Siegel's group back but also decided to start a blues concert series.

Siegel's genre-bending muse provided a particularly impressive coup in 1994 when his Chamber Blues album was released by Alligator Records, a staunchly traditional blues label. His manifesto is made plain on the first track, "Unfinished Jump (Opus 13)"--dedicated to Chicago demigod Michael Jordan. The piece begins with a staccato string flourish utterly in tune with the strictures of chamber music. Ten seconds into the track, however, Siegel's wheezy harmonica blows into the picture, sounding so alien that for a second you think you're hearing the quacking of a duck. Ten seconds after that, Frank Donaldson begins thumping on the skins of his tabla. The results are fresh and original, yet strangely familiar, sort of like Appalachian folk music from some parallel universe. Siegel says that merging the two forms into his compositional style has been a natural and painless process.

"I try to find elements of the blues that can complement classical, and elements of classical that can complement blues," Siegel explains. "When you look at blues and classical from a purely musical perspective, they are not really different, they are merely complementary colors."

The "complementary colors" reference was no accident, as Siegel reveals that this phrase will be the title of his forthcoming album. Though he's become inextricably linked with the chamber-blues form, he takes little credit for its creation, preferring to acknowledge Ozawa (to whom he dedicated the 1994 Alligator release) for seeing something special in him three decades ago. Perhaps Siegel's greatest gift is not as an innovator per se, but as an artistic spirit who stubbornly refuses to accept any restrictions on his ability to create music--whether from the traditionalists he calls the "blues police" or the elitist conservatory types.

"I work as an artist, and the way artists work is you come from the heart," he says. "You try and find the inspiration and go with that, at any cost. And you use fearlessness as a tool to allow you to go with that inspiration. So the word 'concern' doesn't really come into play when you're pursuing an art form.

"I think there are more purists in blues and jazz and heavy metal than in classical. Classical musicians are just open for anything, where blues musicians are still desperately trying to uphold tradition. And that's great. Tradition must be upheld, we must have respect for all these blues masters that came before us. But not at the cost of joy."

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 16, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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