Album Reviews

Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues - Different voices


Downbeat magazine editors' pick - National Treasure ~ totally killer stuff throughout ~ a truly unique musical journey ~ most original and innovative music ~ smoking out of the ordinary stuff ~ dazzling special guests ~ Fantastical and complete ~ definitely the most interesting, intricate, and daring recording ~ Music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact ~ Either a Musical Genius or crazier than the proverbial outhouse rat ~ Facinating ... Compelling ... 5 stars ~ The breadth and layers of this project are so stunning that I can’t recall hearing anything like this. ~ To call this brilliant is to state the obvious

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"National treasure"

Corky Siegel is an underappreciated national treasure. The music he makes is so usual that for his latest release, Different Voices, he has included a description on the album cover: "Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet." For more than 50 years, Siegel has been melding his masterful blues harmonica playing with accessible classical music,  and at age 73, he has just released an album containing some of the best work of his career. On paper, it might sound as if Siegel weaves together various instruments and the genres just for the sake of being eccentric, or educational. But in practice, the 12 songs on Different Voices form a cohesive program, all tied together by his emotive harmonica work. The opening track, "Missing Persons Blues–Op. 26," features a terrific tenor saxophone solo by jazz titan Ernie Watts. "One" contains soaring, hypnotic vocals by rock singer Matthew Santos, who, at time sounds a bit like the late Jeff Buckley. Siegel recruited singer-songwriter Marcy Levy (aka Marcella Detroit) to sing lead on a slow, fresh rendition of "Lay Down Sally," a classic that she wrote with Eric Clapton and George Terry. Octogenarian bluesman Sam lay offers an authentic reading of "Flip, Flop And Fly," which is preceded by Siegel's compelling original composition "Italian Shuffle." Siegel teams up with folk trio Son of the Never Wrong for an epic version of the gospel standard "I'll Fly Away." An arrangement of "Galloping Horses" pairs the erhu (an ancient, two-stringed fiddle played by violinist Chihsuan Yang) with vocal beat-boxing (deftly delivered by Santos). It's extremely impressive that the core band–Siegel, Yang, Jaime Gorgojo (violin), David Moss (viola) and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders (cello)– can craft music that gracefully incorporates contributions from diverse collaborators, including tabla players Sandeep Das and Frankie Donaldson, yet still feels wholly organic.

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"The breadth and layers of this project are so stunning that I can’t recall hearing anything like this."

Apirl 10, 2017

I was unaware of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues projects until now, though I went to college near Chicago and we often played the discs and saw the Siegel-Schwall Band perform live. A brief history: In 1973 the Siegel-Schwall Band released Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra on the classical Deutsche Grammophon label. Two principals emerged from the project: jazz trombonist and composer William Russo and famed conductor Seiji Ozawa, who had been a long-time fan of the Siegel-Schwall Band. These two, mostly Ozawa, encouraged harmonicist Siegel to move in this direction, resulting in the first Chamber Blues ensemble recording on Alligator in 1994. Two other recordings followed and this is the fourth. So much for the history lesson—let’s get to the music. Google can take care of the rest.

First, you have to admire the concept that lends itself to cute little phrases like “Muddy meets Mozart” or “A bluesman and a classical string quartet walk into a bar.” Yet, this project goes beyond even the seemingly polar opposites of blues and classical, as Siegel invited blues legend Sam Lay, Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts, Indian table master Sandeep Das, and R&B Singer Marcy Levey (who sings her hit “Lay Down Sally” composed with Eric Clapton), indie singer-songwriter Matthew Santos, and Chicago’s folk trio, Song of the Never Wrong. Not only do we have blues and classical music but jazz, world, gospel, R&B, and smatterings of folk herein – hence the title. The breadth and layers of this project are so stunning that I can’t recall hearing anything like this.

The first cut, “Missing Persons Blues – Op.26” features Ernie Watts and is a mash-up of blues, classical and jazz. “Time Will Tell Overture –Op, 25” features the table of Sandeep Das. Siegel takes the lead vocal on several tracks but is more than willing to share the spotlight with his guests. Santos takes the lead vocal on “One” and again on his own composition “Shadows in a Shoe Box.” Sons of the Never Wrong deliver innovatively on “I’ll Fly Away” with Deb Lader adding sparking mandolin: and Sam Lay takes his turn as well on the next piece. Siegel describes it, “”Italian Shuffle’ is based on the Chicago Blues style shuffle but you would swear it comes from Tuscany, not Chicago. And you can tell we surprised the heck out of blues legend Sam Lay, who responds by singing the classic ‘Flip, Flop and Fly.’ If there is a theme that has followed me from my first gig at Pepper’s and through this project it is this joy of diversity and togetherness that has enriched and shaped my life. The culmination of all this is reflected in the song ‘One,’ where we look out at the world and see we are all intimately connected.”

The packaging and liner notes are exquisitely detailed with lyrics provided. One little capsule that caught my attention was Siegel’s nod to these four major influencers: Maestro Seiji Ozawa, William Russo, Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters. There are some select dates, mostly in the Great Lakes states, where you can hear this unit perform with some of the special guests. Unless you’ve heard Siegel and Chamber Blues before, you really do have to hear this to believe it.

—Jim Hynes

"artistic intricacy and beauty"

This is definitely the most interesting, intricate, and daring recording to come to this reviewer’s attention in quite awhile.  There are musical interludes that include Blues, Folk, Classical, and Jazz that intermix and mingle creating new common grounds that open ever expanding vistas to wider exploration.  This disc which is due to appear on April 4, 2017 has been a long evolving work in progress for this musician and the intimate groups and individuals he works with.  Corky Siegel has long been a legend as a harmonica wielding cross genre musician who loves to break down barriers, and who manages to bring together other like minded souls for certain projects that spark interest in multiple divergent genres of music, from the hard blues of his early days with Jim Schwall to some of the divergent musicians he plays this music with.  Musicians lending their talents include Ernie Watts, Sandeep Das, and Marcy Levy.  This is truly a collaborative effort combining the works of many disparate forces, interwoven by the visionary on the harmonica.  
We have on this disc a carefully selected group of musicians:  think it is safe to say we all know Corky Siegel and his mastery of the Blues Harmonica and Vocals, and then we have the classical string quartet of Jamie Gorgojo (Violin), Chihsuan Yang (Violin/Erhu {a two stringed bowed Chinese Violin}/vocals), Dave Moss (Viola) Jocelyn Butler Shoulders (Cello).  This aggregate is then and reenforced with various voices such as Sam Lay, Sandeep Das, Mathew Santos, Marcy Levy (AKA Marella Detroit) and the Sons of the Never Wrong.  Power and delicacy combined.
Then there are the songs, six are composed by Corky Siegel, one by Corky and Holly Siegel, one by Corky Siegel and Mathew Santos, one by Mathew Santos, one by Eric Clapton, one by Albert Brumley Sr., and one by Hai Huang-Hai as diverse a group of Composers as you will find.  The songs stretch an equally wide variety of material.  Suffice it to say the music is as diverse as both the musicians and the composers but never easy to pin down and always intriguing.  A fantastical and complete work that will provoke much thought and hopefully some comparable works by others coming.  
Bob Gottlieb - Journal of Roots Music - No Depression

"To call this brilliant is to state the obvious."

This ongoing project of harmonica legend Corky Siegel features a string quartet of Jaime Gorgojo (violin), Chihsuan Yang (violin, ehru, a two-stringed Chinese violin, and vocal). Dave Moss (viola), and Jocelyn Butler Shoulders (cello). Additionally, tabla player Sandeep Das is on one track, saxophonist Ernie Watts on one track, vocalists Matthew Santos and Marcy Levy, drummer Sam Lay and the Chicago-based folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong are also contributors. Percussionist/drummer Frankie Donaldson, a 26-year veteran of working with Chamber Blues, as well as a decade with Ramsey Lewis, is prominently featured, as well. Most of the dozen compositions are from Siegel and, as mentioned, they combine harmonica with string quartet. To call this brilliant is to state the obvious. It is also demanding music. It breaks any preconceptions that listeners may have regarding the wedding of classical string quartet and blues harmonica. The Siegel-Schwall Blues Band first tackled this alliance of styles in 1973 on a recording with the Chicago Symphony under the baton of Seji Ozawa. Mr. Siegel saw Alligator release two Chamber Blues recordings in 1994 and 2005 and in 1998 released Complementary Colors on Gadfly Records.

The disc at hand opens with a harmonica wail surrounded by the strings plucking and bowing thoughtfully. Ernie Watts, a first class jazz master adds his voice to the mix, dueting with and chasing Siegel as the strings become more cohesive and couching. Missing Persons Blues, Op. 26 sees these disparate voices join in a harmonious and complementary singular song, sometimes sounding like an outside jazz piece. On One, also from his pen, a beautiful harmonica section surrounded by sweet strings sets the stage for Santos to sing in a jazzy style, “in Paradise a pair of hearts are one.” Strings, percussion and harp work superbly. His Time Will Tell Overture, with Das on tabla, is another voice that weaves seamlessly with strings. The interplay between the strings and the principals is equally mesmerizing. Just when you get into the classical mode, along comes Marcy Levy to sing Lay Down Sally, a song she co-wrote with Eric Clapton. The reading is adventurous with the strings taking on a percussive and swinging role. This is followed by a captivating string-driven version of the Siegel-Schwall classic Angel Food Cake. Corky and the strings work superbly together. On Shadows in a Shoebox, written by Santos, Siegel’s harmonica introduces the theme, with the strings again gently holding him before Santos joins in, sometimes scatting the melody. The following gospel classic, I’ll Fly Away, features the Sons of the Never Wrong’s Deb Lader, Sue Demel and Bruce Roper on vocals. Demel’s guitar and Lader’s mandolin are integrated with the string quartet in a marvelous singing in tandem with percussion and harmonica. Next up is a combination of Corky’s Italian Shuffle with the blues classic Flip, Flop and Fly, sung by Sam Lay in a thoroughly enjoyable lope. Keeping contrasts at the heart of the disc, Galloping Horses, composed by Hai Huang-Hai features Chihsuan on the ehru. This is followed by the two part Counter Intuitive, Op.24 from Siegel. This is a swinging harp piece with strings offering counterpoint. On the second part the viola of Dave Moss is featured. The closing Siegel composition The Sky Will Fall reminds of Charlie Haden in its introductory section for its voicing. Siegel sings, “If we never learn to give/we’ll be facing emptiness…if we don’t learn to love, the sky will fall.”

Siegel has performed around the world as a guest artist of some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras and he has received countless classical music awards. But, don’t forget that he was the harper for the great Siegel-Schwall Band. The combination of the two Corkys is a delight.

—Mark E. Gallo

Glimpses of my life experience in the Blues from the time I was introduced in 1963 to the present

Glimpses of my life experience in the Blues from the time I was introduced in 1963 to the present

Corky Siegel is either a musical genius, or crazier than the proverbial "outhouse rat."

Corky Siegel is either a musical genius, or crazier than the proverbial "outhouse rat." I guess I'll chose the former rather than the later.  The initial concept for the marriage of blues and classical was most likely when classical conductor Seiji Ozawa brought together the Siegel-Schwall Band and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  They first performed Three Pieces For Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, by William Russo 1n 1968.   The Siegel-Schwall Band released Three Pieces For Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, performed with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1973.  A second piece of Russo's work, "Street Music: A Blues Concerto" was released in 1979.  Corky Siegel is without question, one of the finest harmonica players ever to draw breath.  Past Masters like Larry Adler and Toots Theilemans helped to raise the instrument that was once considered almost a toy, taking it to the concert stages in both Jazz & Classical Music.  Where many saw musical genres, Corky Siegel saw possibilities.  He formed Chamber Blues in 1988 incorporating elements of classical, blues & jazz.  The core band consists of Corky Siegel, obviously, two violinists, Jaime Gorgojo and Chihsuan Yang, a viola played by Dave Moss, Cello by Jocelyn Butler Shoulders and Frankie Donaldson, a percussionist.  This union of styles, which was envisioned so long ago, is going stronger than ever.  The Different Voices referred to on the album include Ernie Watts, Sandeep Das, Mathew Santos, Marcy Levy, Sam Lay and Sons of the Never Wrong.  Beside those mentioned earlier, Corky wishes to thank Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf for their contributions.  Different Voices may well be Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues finest work to date.  I recommend it very highly.  As for my favorite cut, I would have to say Italian Shuffle/ Flip Flop & Fly.  This is, at the very least, cutting edge stuff. - Bill Wilson

"Totally killer stuff throughout."

Over 50 years in, with the aid of crowd funding, we find Siegel finally making the album he had in him all along or else the album he always wanted to make.  With nobody from Vanguard, RCA or Dharma telling him what to do, he calls in an incredible array of guests, breaks down the fourth wall to reach you directly and makes an album so cinematic that it’s better than most of the movies coming out these days. This is smoking out of the ordinary stuff from an old pro that sounds like he’s really come into his own here (if that even makes sense).  Sounding a million miles away from a bunch of white boys with the blues fighting a turf war with the Butterfield bunch, this is state of the art white boy blues---with lots of soul stirred in.  Totally killer stuff throughout.

Chris Spector - Midwest Record -


Review Rating 5 Stars

"fascinating and thoroughly organic musical fusion"

By Duane Verh-  April 9, 2017 - 12:00am EDT

From the opening choruses of the leadoff track, “Missing Persons Blues- Op.- 26”, as the lines of blues harp, strings, tabla and sax entwine around each other, each gliding forward with snake-like grace, one is taken in by the fascinating and thoroughly organic musical fusion Chicago blues vet Corky Siegel and company have realized.  Long a practitioner of this particular strain of genre-splicing, Mr. Siegel provides this mix with compositions and adaptations suitably compelling and quirky.  And rest assured, this blues bar-bred bandleader has blocked out plenty of time for his own solid blow choruses. While the cover of “Lay Down Sally”, fronted by Eric Clapton collaborator Marcy Levy, is a safe bet for airplay, tracks including “Shadows In The Shoe Box”,  “Angel Food Cake” and the very haunting “One” are attention-worthy as well.

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"some of the most original and innovative music"

May well be some of the most original and innovative music I have heard in a while.  Combining classical stylings with blues harmonica and so much more" Ear2TheGroundMusic

Breaking the Ground a Little More

"music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact."

March 25, 2017 Tom Orr

If the title doesn’t say it all, as in the case of Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues’ album Different Voices (Dawnserly Records, 2016), it might be necessary to add an explanation like “Blues Harmonica and Classical String Quartet,” which this one does on the front cover. Siegel’s blues harp is certainly the first thing heard, in the form of a mournful wail that ushers in violins, viola, cello and the saxophone of guest Ernie Watts on the cheeky drag of “Missing Persons Blues.” That one’s a head-bobber, and nothing that follows breaks the flow, be it the vocal contributions of Matthew Santos (who also does some handy beatboxing), blues vet Sam Lay or Marcy Levy (reinvigorating that old warhorse “Lay Down Sally,” which she co-wrote with Eric Clapton).

High marks also for the aching gospel tinges of Chicago folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong on “I’ll Fly Away” and subtle counterpunch of the tabla that adds a groove dimension throughout. The interwoven tones of harmonica and strings bring forward the roots of their respective traditions while keeping the blues undertow intact and allowing for experimentation such as the Central Asian-flavored “Galloping Horses,” a track which ends too soon. It all wraps up beautifully with “The Sky Will Fall,” a most heed-worthy lament; although I think music of this caliber can keep both sky and earth intact.

"...a true pioneer who won't dream of slowing down."

"Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues, Different Voices. Why not? Take a long-time Chicago blues groover and cross him with a chamber string quartet and several very special guests and see what happens. Corky Siegel has always been someone with an ear for adventure, all the way back to the Siegel-Schwall Band that infiltrated the South Side clubs in Chicago to learn blues at the feet of masters like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. Siegel's harp playing became its own force of nature, and he's survived a lot of miles and milestones. He's also been someone who likes to cross-pollinate and work with outside influences like classical musicians to see what happens. His compositions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra blew minds a half-century ago, and Corky Siegel hasn't slowed down since. Now that he's recording here with a classical string quartet along with guests like Paul Butterfield Blues Band drummer Sam Lay, singer Marcy Levy, tabla master Sandeep Das, folk trio Sons of the Never Wrong, and jazz saxophone legend Ernie Watts, it's like his palette is growing exponentially. It's almost like listeners need scorecards to track all the action. But that's Corky Siegel, a true pioneer who won't dream of slowing down." (Bill Bentley/ Bentley's Bandstand)

I just had the opportunity to review the most recent release (April 7, 2017), Different Voices from Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues and it's quite different. Corky Siegel, once member of the famed Siegel-Schwall Band, is back with an interesting concept. Orchestral blues. Opening with Missing Persons Blues - Op 25 forms around a traditional Chicago blues theme but featuring the strong sax work of Ernie Watts with Siegel on harp, Jamie Gorgojo on violin, Chihsuan Yang on violin, Dave Moss on viola, Jocelyn Butler Shoulders on cello and Frankie Donaldson on tabla.  ONE features lush harp work by Siegel and crystal clear vocals by Matthew Santos on vocal, this track having more of a euro, show sound. Time Will Tell Overture - Op. 25 features Sandeep Das on tabla balanced with Siegel and enriched by nicely orchestrated violin accompaniment. On pop track, Lay Down Sally, an Eric Clapton and Marcy Levy composition, Marcy levy takes the lead on vocal, maintaining it's pop roots but with a critical orchestral spin. Siegel layers harp soloing over cello and viola giving the track a bluesy feel. Angel Food Cake features Siegel on lead vocal and fuses the styling of the original SSB with orchestral accompaniment. Cool. Shadows In A Shoe Box is one of my favorite tracks on the release with a more classical stance. Santos and Yang share the vocal floor with a light jazzy flavor and Siegel layers in rich harp work. Very nice. Albert Brumley's I'll Fly Away maintains a lot of it's original structure and builds in a gospel manner with Bruce Roper, Deb Lader and Sue Demel on vocal and guitar/Mandolin nicely laid on a string backing. Very nice. Italian Shuffle/Flip Flop & Fly opens with a light, airy orchestral piece over a 12 bar bottom, evolving into a blues standard featuring the great Sam Lay on vocal. A more deliberate classical composition, Galloping Horses, features Chihsuan Yang on erhu and Matthew Santos on beat box. Nicely done.   Another nicely fused classical blues track, Counter Intuitive Op. 24 Part One has a deliberate walking bass line performed on strings and plucked violin strings with Siegel playing classic blues harp riffs but dressed with classical violin dressing. On Part 2 Siegel takes a more adventurous lead harp role and with violin supported melody and classical structure. Wrapping the release is The Sky Will Fall, with a solid Americana feel. Siegel is front and center on lead vocal and harp. Santos adds contrasting vocals over a passionate violin bridge and Siegel is showcased on harp to close out the release.

Bmans Blues Report

Nashville Blues Society
Nashville Blues Society

"a truly unique musical journey!"

Long-time blues fans may remember The Siegel-Schwall Band, led by harp ace Corky Siegel and guitarist Jim Schwall.  They were originally based in Chicago in the mid-Sixties, holding down a regular gig at the legendary Pepper’s Lounge.  After releasing their first album in 1966 for Vanguard, they headed west to San Francisco, continuing to record until the early Seventies before going on an extended hiatus.

During that time, Corky Siegel had a unique vision–one that would incorporate the blues of Muddy and the Wolf with classical chamber music.   Corky recorded three albums of this “chamber blues,” two for Alligator and one for Gadfly Records.  His latest set “Different Voices,” continues his path toward melding traditional blues with classical themes.  He employs some dazzling special guests throughout this one, too.

One can get a firm grasp on what the concept of “chamber blues” is by listening to the opening instrumental track, “Missing Persons Blues Op. 26.”  Corky’s harp spars with the sax of two-time Grammy winner Ernie Watts as the strings pull it all together.  Corky takes the lead vocal as pizzicato strings set the tone on a Siegel-Schwall fan favorite, “Angel Food Cake,” while Marcy Levy easily hits the upper-register notes on a fine read of her iconic “Lay Down Sally,” which was co-written by Marcy, Clapton and George Terry.

We had two favorites, too.  One of Chicago’s favorite folk trios is The Sons Of The Never Wrong, and they breathe new life into Albert Brumley, Sr.’s traditional “I’ll Fly Away.”  Consisting of Bruce Roper, Deb Lader, and Sue Demel, Sue adds a new verse to this Sunday-morning staple.  And, what begins as “The Italian Shuffle” with Corky’s harpover the strings, gives way to the mighty Sam Lay’s vocal on a clever segue’ into “Flip Flop And Fly.”

Corky Siegel has composed and performed works for the Grant Park Symphony in Chicago and the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.  And, thru the fusion of the music of the legends of Chicago blues he grew up listening to with the textures and sounds of classical music, he is, indeed 'the father of chamber blues.' Give a listen to his latest, “Different Voices,” for a truly unique musical journey!

Sheryl and Don Crow, The Nashville Blues Society.

Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues: Different Voices (Dawnserly Records)

The Siegel-Schwall Band was one of Chicago’s “white blues” pioneers along with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. As early as 1973, Siegel-Schwall recorded with the San Francisco Symphony, a direction Corky Siegel continued to follow in his solo career. On Different Voices, the blues harmonica player works with a jazz saxophonist, an Indian percussionist and a string quartet—often to good effect. The songs occasionally suggest the sort of thing George Gershwin might have done had he lived post-Porgy and Bess.