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."

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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