Over the past three decades, the voice of Janis Siegel a nine-time Grammy winner and a seventeen-time Grammy nominee has been an undeniable force in The Manhattan Transfer’s diverse musical catalog. Alongside her career as a member of this 33-year musical institution, Siegel has also sustained a solo career that has spawned more than 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” (b/w "Hymn of Love”) on Red Bird Records, and "It’s Not Gonna Take Too Long” (b/w "Diggin’ You”) on Kapp Records.
"At that time, I was exclusively listening to pop music,” Siegel recalls. "When Motown became popular, I fell head over heels for it, as well as for people like Aretha Franklin. And of course I went insane over the Beatles. But I also loved Barbra Streisand. And living in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of Broadway shows too.” On the jazz side, she remembers John Coltrane as her musical idol during her high school and college years.
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.
Over the years, Janis’ unmistakable voice has become one of the group’s most recognizable trademarks. She sang lead on some of the Transfer’s biggest hits, such as "Operator,” "Chanson D’Amour,” "Twilight Zone,” "Birdland,” "Ray’s Rockhouse,” "Sassy,” "Spice of Life,” "Mystery,” and "The Boy from N.Y.C.” She also gained a reputation as a vocal arranger by writing five of the charts for the group’s acclaimed masterwork, Vocalese, seven charts for the group’s Grammy-winning album Brasil, and won a Grammy herself in 1980 for her arrangement of "Birdland.” In 1993, she and her Manhattan Transfer colleagues received their honorary doctorates from the Berklee School of Music, and in 1999 they were among the first class of inductees into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
But Siegel has been riding a dual career track for nearly two decades. In addition to her stage and studio work with The Manhattan Transfer, she launched her solo career in 1982 with the release of Experiment in White—a rare but favorite album among Siegel’s fans. Her follow-up 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. In addition to Hersch, The Tender Trap session roster included high-profile players like Michael Brecker, Hank Crawford, Russell Malone and Victor Lewis.
Through it all, diversity has been a hallmark of Siegel’s career. Some of her favorite collaborations over the years have been with Turkish electronic 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 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 Solerno-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. It was in that building that Siegel wrote and recorded her earliest songs with the Young Generation. But the Brill Building concept expanded dramatically once the I Wish You Love sessions got under way. Crafted with a distinctly late ‘50s nightclub vibe, the album was a collection of pop and jazz hits all penned during the fertile musical period from the late ‘50s to mid-‘60s, and all associated in some way with women and the female perspective.
Her 2003 recording, Friday Night Special, combined 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 followed Friday Night Special with Sketches of Broadway a year later. Sketches spotlights classic Broadway hits by Irving Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and others. Produced by Gil Goldstein, Sketches of Broadway offers eleven showstoppers, including the opener "Show Me” (from My Fair Lady), "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (Oklahoma), "I Have Dreamed” (The King and I), "I Got the Sun in the Morning” (Annie Get Your Gun) and "My Best Beau” (Mame).
In 2006, Siegel takes a giant step away from traditional jazz and the great American songbook with the March release of her ninth solo project, A Thousand Beautiful Things, an eclectic set culled from a wide cross section of songwriters (Bjork, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Annie Lennox, Suzanne Vega and others) and interpreted through a predominantly Latin lens. Far more than just another Latin record, though, A Thousand Beautiful Things is a hybrid recording that embraces a wide spectrum of sources, sounds and cultures.
In an age when buyers and sellers are quick to jam music and musicians into convenient little boxes, Siegel—either as a solo artist or in a group setting—has already built a career on defying preconceptions and stereotypes. A Thousand Beautiful Things is another step in Siegel’s ongoing pursuit of eclecticism. "The question about The Manhattan Transfer was always: ‘Are you a jazz group or a pop group?’” she says. "When we were concentrating on jazz and we had Vocalese out in 1985 and it was very popular, we were embraced by the jazz purists and jazz radio, but pop radio wouldn’t play us. But then when we do pop records, oh my God, the jazz people just go to pieces.”
Siegel’s most recent collaborations and projects outside The Manhattan Transfer are many and varied. They include touring as a member of the acclaimed improvisational vocal group, Bobby McFerrin’s Voicestra, an appearance as a ‘30s-style Boswellian (as in The Boswell Sisters) cowgirl on the debut album by Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione, titled 33 1/3, and being a participant alongside Luciana Souza, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams in a tribute to jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. Miss Siegel was also a member of the distinguished ensemble cast debuting Cy Coleman, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s jazz song cycle, "Songs For A New Millenium,” at the Kennedy Center. She appears with her duo partner Fred Hersch on 2 Hands 10 Voices, a benefit album for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, a cause close to her heart, and also contributed three cuts to NY drummer Steve Hass’ CD, Traveler. The summer of 2003 found her an eager participant in the Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl Tribute to Ella Fitgerald. Siegel performed to rave reviews with an all-star ensemble including Dame Cleo Lane, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Kevin Mahogany and Canadian jazz singer Denzil Sinclaire.
Siegel who has made a home in Manhattan with her 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.”