Janis Siegel, Lauren Kinhan Serve Up Vocal Gumbo


A pair of claves taps out the classic three-plus-two beat. Two jazz divas, each a member of a legendary jazz vocal group, appear in separate Zoom boxes, singing and dancing around their respective kitchens, using pots, pans and cooking utensils to beat out the Afro-Cuban rhythm.

Calling all around the world,” they sing, “Start with a roux, that’s me and you / Add the holy trinity / That’s rhythm, chords and melody / C’mon, c’mon now add your spice / Tell your story, very nice.”

So begins each episode of Vocal Gumbo, a monthly online variety show and salon, a gathering place for quarantined singers and musicians, showcasing vocal music from around the world, including jazz, folk, r&b, pop and world music. It’s the brainchild of longtime friends Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer (TMT) and Lauren Kinhan of the New York Voices (NYV), who host each episode from their kitchens.

The format includes libations, chat about music and pandemic life, and extended musical segments, including original video collaborations between the hosts and invited guests, who include everyone from industry heavyweights like Kurt Elling, Dianne Reeves, Sheila Jordan, Jane Monheit, Catherine Russell and Dee Dee Bridgewater to the hosts’ singing discoveries from around the world and emerging young artists. Siegel and Kinhan often contribute background vocals to their guests’ videos, as well as showcasing their own original solo projects.

On a recent show, The Manhattan Transfer and New York Voices combined into an eight-voice supergroup to perform a spectacular Darmon Meader arrangement of Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” featuring a guest appearance by tap dancer Ayodele Casel. Kinhan, using new video editing skills she honed during the pandemic, skillfully mixed video contributions from the nine participants. “It was five days of not standing up, but we landed the plane,” she remarked during a joint Zoom interview with Siegel and the show’s co-producer Laurie Green.

Another notable and timely collaboration was with singer Kate McGarry and her partner, guitarist Keith Gans, who delivered a haunting, impressionistic performance of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Siegel and Kinhan added background vocals. “We got this beautiful piece from them,” Kinhan said. “Janis recorded her vocal ideas. I did mine separately. Each of us didn’t know what the other was doing,” but the result was “revelatory.” Green, acting as video editor, intercut the singers’ contributions with clips of Black Lives Matter protests and some footage Siegel shot outside her Greenwich Village apartment of the nightly thank-you demonstrations to health care workers caring for those stricken during the pandemic. The result became a kind of time capsule for the country’s social awakening of 2020.

The program’s combination of convivial banter and adventurous musical tastes led Sirius XM to feature Siegel and Kinhan as guest DJs on a four-part “Women in Jazz” series that aired in March on the service’s Real Jazz Channel. The pair are thinking about doing more radio in the future, as well as taking Vocal Gumbo on the road once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Vocal Gumbo grew out of “Vocal Mania,” a New York City concert series that the singers launched in April 2018. As Kinhan described them, those monthly events, sometimes at Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village, sometimes at Birdland in midtown, featured new songs by the hosts; guest appearances by “all the incredible singers we knew” who happened to be in New York; collaborations with a special guest; and a showcase for up-and-coming young vocal talent.

“Vocal Mania” presented artists like Raul Midón, Alicia Hall Moran and Sheila Jordan. At Birdland, Kurt Elling and Freddy Cole, on separate occasions, “popped downstairs between sets” in the main room to the club’s basement theater, to sing a few impromptu numbers with Siegel and Kinhan. The series grew in popularity. “We created a community. We really fell in love with doing it,” Kinhan said.

Then the pandemic hit. “It’s March 13, 2020, and I’ve arrived home from an aborted Manhattan Transfer tour,” Siegel said. “At first we all thought, OK, I’m sure we’ll be back at work by the summer.” When that didn’t happen, “We felt like, we can’t give (Vocal Mania) up! How can we make it work?”

The pair recruited Green, who has long worked as a road manager for TMT and NYV, and the three gradually figured out the technology of live-streaming and video editing, learning as they went. The first Vocal Gumbo episode aired in May 2020.

Early shows included interviews with the artists. But, with so much to talk about going on in the world in 2020 — the pandemic, the lockdowns and their economic effects on the music industry, and then the numerous incidents of police violence against unarmed Black civilians and resulting social upheaval — Siegel and Kinhan decided that the interviews needed their own show. Those segments became the Vocal Gumbo Happy Hours, now airing twice a month, one free on YouTube and Facebook, the other a bonus for Vocal Gumbo’s patrons on Patreon.com.

If the pandemic had a silver lining for the jazz divas, it’s that, by forcing them to learn to produce music at home and navigate the borderless virtual world created by Internet technology, it enabled them to vastly broaden the scope of Vocal Gumbo from a local night club show to a global café.

Even when the crisis is over, they plan to keep Vocal Gumbo streaming, not least because “it’s a great way to collaborate with people all over the planet,” Kinhan said.

“We’re a production house now,” Siegel added. “My dream would be to start a record label and put out these one-of-a-kind collaborations. It took us a little while, but the thing we began to realize is that we can reach out to anybody. We know where everyone is now. They’re all at home.” DB

Tickets, priced at $15, are available for each monthly episode at vocalgumbo.com. The website also offers highlights of past shows for free. Vocal Gumbo also has a YouTube channel, Facebook page and a Patreon page for fans who want to support the series as subscribers.

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