Corky Siegel and Michael J. Miles have been pushing past other people's expectations of what their instruments, harmonica and banjo respectively, should do for some time now. A long-time bluesman, Siegel took up an offer by conductor Seiji Ozawa in the late 1960s to join his band with a symphony orchestra in a piece by William Russo. That led to a series of concerts and a landmark recording. Siegel decided to pursue the concept, but as he puts it, the symphony wouldn't fit on the bus, so he came up with Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues. Siegel describes it this way:
"It's the juxtaposition of blues and classical, where the special of elements classical maintain their character, and the compositional effects of the blues style maintain their characteristics. So you can hear the blues and classical happening compositionally at the same time and hear how they complement each other."
According to Siegel, they complement each other quite well. The group consists of Siegel on harmonica and sometimes piano, string quartet, East Indian tabla and sometimes vocal, and occasionally, guest artists like Michael Miles.
Like Siegel, claw hammer banjo master Michael Miles first became known for a particular genre, folk, inspiring glowing compliments from the likes of Pete Seeger. But he has also recorded albums of the music of Bach, as well as collaborations with blues artists like Siegel, and others. And like Siegel, he sees no contradiction:
"The world needs categorization of classical music and jazz music and blues and folk, but ultimately it all comes down to rhythm and melody. And so if you can hear what it is you want to play, it doesn't really matter what style it is."
Miles says the sound of the string quartet is so beautiful, and why not have harmonica in there, because the sound of the harmonica can be beautiful as well. Likewise, he says, the banjo, not known for beauty, can manifest a certain elegance as well. Miles says it's about being willing to push boundaries aside.
"That's what we're able to envision, and then have the good fortune of finding people who can join us in creating those visions, [to] create altogether new sounds."
Siegel says in his experience, despite whatever expectations someone might have, everything works in music. People don't think Chamber Blues will work, he says, based on stereotypes they carry in their heads.
"We call symphonic music 'square' and blues music 'hip' but music doesn't know about these words. So when you erase all those words and look at the music, it truly is the same."
What differences there are, Siegel says, only serve to provide additional material, and a chance to create something new.
Siegel says, after decades at it, he still feels he's just barely scratched the surface of chamber blues, and will continue to pursue it as long as he can. Oh, and by the way, he absolutely loves it.
No argument from Miles on that last point. He says he and Siegel are fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to use their talents in this manner, drawing on many influences to create music they can call their own.
"It is who we are, and it is what we do. This is what makes the day worthwhile."