Interview by Stephen Hanks
While I became a fan of the entire Manhattan Transfer the first time I heard them offer their delicious harmonies on TV in 1975, I fell in love with Janis Siegel’s exquisite alto voice from the moment I heard her do the lead on—what else?—a love song, otherwise known as “Chanson D’Amour” (which was a number one hit for the group in the UK in 1977). So after hearing Siegel over the past couple of years in a Manhattan Transfer gig at the Blue Note, and then with her “girl” group JaLaLa (with former Transfer member Laurel Masse and Lauren Kinhan of the vocal group New York Voices), I was more than a little excited to hear Siegel had been booked for a solo show at 54 Below (this Thursday night at 11pm). It will be the second part of what amounts to a nightclub doubleheader, as earlier in the evening Ann Hampton Callaway will be in the middle of a five night/seven show run of her “Streisand Songbook.” Although the Callaway and Siegel shows on Thursday night are two separate 54 Below admissions (like the style of current baseball doubleheaders), there’s an outside chance audiences might get some added value if these great singers, who are also close friends, decide to appear for a number during each other’s gigs.
I got this potential “scoop” when I recently visited Siegel—who was born in Brooklyn and has lived in Manhattan since 1981—at her West Village digs. The nine-time Grammy winner and 17-time Grammy nominee was still figuring out her 54 Below set list, which should include many songs from her upcoming CD, her first solo studio disc since 2006. Siegel will be jamming in the studio sessions amidst an incredibly busy upcoming schedule. The day after our interview, she would be leaving to perform weekend shows with the Transfer on the West Coast and to do a solo concert in Seattle. Then it’s back to New York for the 54 Below gig and recording the CD. In mid October, Siegel and the Transfer will be performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center before going on a late October Japan tour that takes them to Nagoya and Tokyo. In November, the iconic singing group will be doing six shows in Seattle before coming back to New York late in the month for six shows in three nights at the Blue Note. And in mid-January, Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices and Jon Hendricks, the originator of “Vocalese,” will collaborate for a celebration of Vocalese (the singing form where complex and sophisticated instrumental jazz solos are delivered as melodies with swinging, poetic lyrics) at the Smith Center in Las Vegas.
Forty years after first coming together in 1972, Manhattan Transfer (which in addition to Janis includes Tim Hauser, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne) is still going strong, a major source of pride for Janis Siegel, considered by many music experts to one of the best female jazz singers ever.
Stephen Hanks: So it’s now 40 years and counting for The Manhattan Transfer. Pretty amazing. There are very few groups that have been around since the 1960s or ‘70s, let alone with almost all their original members [Bentyne replace Laurel Masse in 1978 after Masse was injured in a car accident] still on board.
Janis Siegel: It is pretty incredible. This past year when Cheryl was ill for about eight months we needed to get a substitute soprano and it was the first time in the group’s history that a member was out sick and had to be replaced. Thankfully, Cheryl’s back and in fine health.
SH: So back when you started with the group or even after you became a hit, did you ever think Manhattan Transfer would have this kind of staying power? (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)