He learned at the feet of such legendary Chicago bluesmen as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Hubert Sumlin, and now Corky Siegel, a Chicago blues legend in his own right, is performing with another esteemed mentor, Indian classical violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam.
The blues harmonica/piano great will appear at Lincoln Center Out of Doors’ Aug. 8 presentation of Subramaniam’s Global Fusion, a concert mixing Subramaniam’s music with that of Siegel and jazz fusion guitarist Larry Coryell, as well as Subramaniam’s violin-prodigy son Ambi Subramaniam and wife Kavita Krishnamurthi Subramaniam–one of Bollywood’s foremost “playback” movie soundtrack singers.
Siegel will join the Surbramaniams in performing “Lullaby,” a piece Subramaniam wrote to feature Siegel’s harmonica and Krishnamurthi’s vocal.
“The fact that I get to perform with Mani [Subramaniam] and Ambi and Kavita and basically his family puts me in a state of constant excitement,” says Siegel. “But I’m just excited to get to hang with them!”
Siegel has been collaborating with Subramaniam sicne 1999, and has performed with him in Chicago, New Jersey and India.
“One of the amazing things about Howlin’ Wolf was his complete, 100 percent immersion into the music and his performance,” says Siegel. “Every cell of his body was deeply involved in everything going on and with very intense focus—and the same is true of Mani.”
And that’s what it’s all about, continues Siegel.
“What we’re looking for as collaborators are artists who understand that,” he says. “It just has to be complete–whatever the music is, the skills, techniques, mode of music. It’s about being 100 percent completely immersed at all times. I learned that in the ‘60s with Howlin’ Wolf and relearned it over and over with Mani—a great mentor for that, as well as the fact that on every level, he’s a great man.”
Siegel continues to lead the Siegel-Schwall Band, Chicago’s groundbreaking 1960s rock ‘n’ blues group, with guitarist Jim Schwall. He also heads another pioneering group, Corky Siegel’s Chamber Blues, which features classical string players, a tabla player, and Siegel’s musicianship and blues-classical compositions.
He sees his work with Subramaniam as a continuation of “breaking down the walls and crossing musical boundaries.”
“Bringing blues-style harmonica to Indian-style music is part of the progression that brings people together socially,” Siegel adds. “That’s what Mani is doing with his Global Fusion offering: Bringing people together through different musicians from different cultural backgrounds. In the past he has had a koto player from Japan, an erhu player from China, didgeridoo from Australia, Brazilian guitars, jazz saxophones, Iranian bagpipes, and Moroccan oud all playing together as a great cross-cultural musical offering that sets a great example.”
Bringing in the blues element, though, is “extremely challenging” for Siegel.
“I’ve really got to be in the zone!” he says. “No two ways about it. And then to hear Mani play is just mind blowing.”
He concedes that “sometimes having the blues sit next to the Indian music style on the surface seems a little odd.”
“But two things happen: I become aware of the incredible similarities between blues and Indian music—quarter tones and bending notes, slow glissandos and approach to pitch—and that the expressive quality of the blues and Indian melody is similar even though the modes are a little different. But I do what I do, basically, and that naturally brings some of the blues mode into the Indian mode.”
Siegel stresses, though, that he really doesn’t dwell on any of it.
“I don’t think about all these things I’m talking about!” he maintains. “In retrospect, I basically play what I play and have no idea where I’m going or coming from, but just throw myself into it.”
As for Subramaniam, “he’s a great master–certainly one of the greatest violin players of all time,” Siegel concludes.
“He’s been a great mentor, as has his whole family. I think all of us, if we’re smart, we’re always being mentored by everybody all the time. But the high points of my musical life were the mentoring of the blues masters and Dr. L. Subramaniam.”
[The Examiner has written liner notes to Siegel-Schwall Band reissue CDs.]
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