Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Corky Siegel, Ecstatic Bluesman

Years ago I saw Keith Jerrett perform an open-air concert at the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome. It was standing room only in the most literal sense – no seating, only standing – and I had a fairly good, but not up-close view of the man as he persuaded the piano to do his remarkable bidding. But even at some distance, I could tell it was an angry performance. Maybe the audience was too noisy, or unappreciative, for Jerrett. Supposedly he’s touchy that way.

In any case, at one point Jerrett stopped playing, stood up, glowered at the audience, and left. That was the end of the concert. We stood around for a while, wondering if he would come back, but no.

Corky Seigel’s artistic temperament could not have been any different. He’s an amazing blues harmonica virtuoso, of course, and a hell of a piano man, and all those talents were on display during the concert. But from beginning to end, the unassuming-looking Corky seemed purely happy to be in this modest auditorium, playing to this modest crowd. I don’t think the music he offered up, an unusual, distinctive amalgam of blues and classical, would have worked nearly as well if his attitude had been, “I’m an artist, dammit, listen here.” Instead it was a wide-eyed, “Wow, listen to this! You won’t believe it!”

Who knows how many places he’s played in 40-plus years, venues famous and obscure? He probably doesn’t know, and he wasn’t entirely sure where he was on Saturday, though we didn’t hold that against him. Toward the end of the second set, he gushed, “You’re the best audience I’ve ever had.” Everyone laughed, taking it as a joke about the kind of things musicians say to all their audiences.

“No really, this place is great,” he added. He leaned over a moment to Jill Kaeding, the cellist, and she said something to him. He didn’t hear her, so she repeated in a stage whisper everyone could hear, “Schaumburg.”

“Right, Schaumburg! What a great place!” he enthused. The audience roared with laughter. Corky didn’t need to know exactly where he was, he would be the same ecstatic bluesman anywhere and everywhere, for any audience who would listen.

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