A FEW MINUTES WITH… Jeff “Siege” Siegel – and a quick look at Hetko, Syracuse & Siegel’s new album “When You Were There”

When I’m wrong, I’m usually VERY wrong, and I was truly, madly, deeply wrong some years back when I reviewed Little Friend, a disc by one of the Greater Nippertown jazz scene’s biggest icons, pianist/educator Lee Shaw. While I loved the piano-trio date recorded at Skidmore College’s long-gone Filene Recital Hall, I also said that Shaw should work with another instrumentalist on her next date because that “might offer Shaw a foil that could open new paths for her to explore.” I read that now, years later, and smack my forehead hard.

Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel
Photo by Rudy Lu

Here’s why: First, the piano trio was literally Shaw’s lifeblood. Where some might see the format as limiting, Shaw was a benign ruler of infinite space when she was sitting at the keyboard, and I learned that as I saw and heard more of her in concert and on disc. Second, Little Friend was only the beginning of Shaw’s long-term partnership with bassist Rich Syracuse and drummer Jeff “Siege” Siegel: While Syracuse had played with Shaw for some time, Siegel had only recently joined the group as a replacement for Shaw’s late husband Stan. As the trio became more comfortable with each other, Syracuse & Siegel encouraged Shaw to step further and further out of her comfort zone and find those aforementioned “paths.” As a result, Shaw was playing sharp, bright, adventurous jazz well into her eighties.

Lee’s loss a few years back is still felt in the jazz community, no more so than by her former rhythm section. So, when it was time to do a real recorded tribute to Shaw, it was only fitting that it was a piano-trio date, and that Rich & Siege were the ones to do it. The only question left was: Who plays piano? There’s a wonderful symmetry in Nick Hetko filling that role, as Hetko was a longtime student of Shaw’s and has performed with Syracuse & Siegel on multiple occasions. While Hetko is his own player with all the tools to forge a successful path in this music, it doesn’t take long to hear Shaw’s influence on him: Hetko’s a lover of melody, too, and while he may be more aggressive in places where Lee might have laid back, that aggression never gets in the way of a piece’s individual beauty.

Rich Syracused
Rich Syracuse
Photo by Rudy Lu

But here’s the thing: While When You Were There (ARC) is definitely a tribute disc, it’s not a rehash in any way – in fact, it’s the opposite: There’s only one Lee Shaw composition on the entire date, plus two classic pieces towards the end of the disc were right up Lee’s alley. The rest of When You Were There is new, original works from Hetko, Syracuse & Siegel – and that’s actually a good thing. You get a real sense of both the group and the individuals as they dig into whip-smart compositions like Syracuse’s disc-opening “Sleeper”, “Hetko’s mammoth tale “Captain of a Sinking Ship”, or Siegel’s ever-expanding “Evie’s Theme.” But you also see them moving forward in the same way Shaw moved forward – finding new trails to blaze while staying true to the instrumental matrix she loved.

Between organizing a tour of South Africa with his sextet and ramrodding the crowdfunding campaign for When You Were There, Siegel is hard to pin down. However, he was nice enough to take a few minutes from preparing for Hetko, Syracuse & Siegel’s appearance at the Hudson Valley Jazz Festival to talk about Lee, Rich, and a whole bunch of other stuff:

Hetko, Siegel & Syracuse at the Saratoga Arts Center
Nick Hekto and Rich Syracuse
Photo by Andrzej Pilarczyk

J Hunter: Since Lee’s passing, you and Rich have stuck together as a rhythm section – not just for When You Were There, but for your sextet disc King of Xhosa and for the weekly concert series you’ve established in Woodstock. Was staying together a conscious decision, or did it just shake out that way?

Jeff Siegel: Rich and I have known each other for quite a while and developed a deep friendship, especially through our travels and performances with Lee.   We’ve continued to do many things internationally and have spent countless hours together playing, traveling, eating, et cetera. It’s a natural thing for us to play together as most of what we do as a rhythm section team is second nature to us.  There’s almost a natural ESP that develops over from playing with people over a long period of time, and consistently. Rich and I had traveled to South Africa to perform and teach 5 years ago, and it was natural to invite him to be a part of my group for the project involving Feya Faku.   He has remained in the group because of this great playing relationship we continue to hone to this day. Ironically, after we first met Feya Faku together at a concert in Woodstock those 5 years ago, we went for a slice of pizza at Catskill Mountain Pizza Co. and ended up stumbling into a pretty much weekly gig there, which we have continued to play 5 years later.

When did you and Rich decide it was time to do a Lee Shaw tribute of your own?

Lee is never far from our thoughts.  The time with Lee, both on a musical level as well as friendship, were so memorable and positive for us both.  We just finally decided to record the trio with Nick Hetko because the years go by we wanted to document this trio and pay homage to our dear friend.  It was not something that we thought we should jump on upon her passing but more upon reflection.

Lee Shaw with former student, Nick Hekto
Photo by Rudy Lu

What made Nick Hetko the best choice to fill the piano chair on When You Were There? You and Rich have played with Nick on multiple occasions, but what put him above other piano players you’ve worked with?

There are some wonderful pianists in the area Rich and I have the honor to work with.  Nick is pretty special, though. He plays with a wonderful sense of passion, feeling and virtuosity and is a great listener and interactive player.  Plus he carries within him the spark that Lee ignited and performs her compositions – and, frankly, all else – with a tremendous sense of love. From the first time Rich and I played with him (through Lee), we felt a very strong connection and it was time to document this trio.

Almost all of When You Were There is original material from you, Rich, or Nick. Was that always the way it was going to be? Was there any thought given to just doing pieces Lee wrote?

In a way, the session was more spontaneous than anything.  We didn’t rehearse (we never have), and just decided to each bring in a couple of originals each and then we would do some standards.  I think what we would like people to realize is, that for all of our love and respect for Lee, this trio needs to move on and establish its own material and direction apart from Lee.  Her influence is profound and establishing our own brand is something Lee would feel strongly about I’m sure. That being said, we recorded one of her songs as well as other a couple of others that have associations to Lee.

The one Lee composition on the disc is the title track. What made you choose that piece over everything else she wrote?

In the summer of ’18, Rich and I did a tribute concert to Lee in Germany with the wonderful pianist Dena DeRose.  We had sent a lot of Lee’s music to Dena, and Dena fell in love with this piece, which is both beautiful and harmonically interesting.  We had so much fun playing it with Dena that we decided to try it with Nick, who also loved it. We played it more as a ballad than as a medium tempo, as we did with Dena.  I think it was also a song that Lee didn’t do as much as some of her other originals, and the title too gave us a sense of thinking about her and the sense of void her missing presence created in our lives.

Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel
Photo by Rudy Lu

What’s the story on the two covers that made the disc – Oscar Peterson’s “Oscar’s Boogie” and Jule Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily”? Were they pieces Lee did in concert?

These two pieces we associate with Lee. “Oscar’s Boogie” is a piece that Nick Hetko completely owns on the piano and showcases his virtuosity.  It’s a wonderfully exciting piece and a great showcase, especially for Nick. Because Lee studied with Oscar Peterson, it fit into the concept of honoring Lee, as well.  “I Fall in Love too Easily”, one of our favorite ballads, is also one that Lee loved to play. There are so many great standards that it can be overwhelming sometimes deciding what to play.  I think this is one that Nick really is comfortable with and brings a special feeling to. As far as Lee goes, in her words “My favorite tune is the one I’m playing at the moment!”

How long did it take for the project to happen? How much communication was there between the three of you?

Well, over the course of three years we had discussed going into the studio, and we finally just decided to do it.  We would love to record much more often, but it is always a question of both finances and everyone’s busy schedules to find the time to do it.  I think most of the communication involved finding a mutually convenient time to do it! Probably over the course of about 3 weeks or so as I remember.  

When you finally got into the studio, did it all come together as you expected? How much of the music or the game plan did you have to change, if anything?

Because we have been playing together over the course of about 8 years, it is very easy for us to come together and just hit it.  Everything went really smoothly, with one or two takes. We recorded the whole album in a 6-hour session, I believe. We would have loved to record another day, but finances are always a big consideration when doing these things.  

Jeff Siegel
Photo by Rudy Lu

This is the third disc you’ve put out that was crowdfunded. How did it work for you this time, and what do you think of the crowdfunding process in general?

I went kicking and screaming into doing the first one as I hate to ask for money, and many people were already doing (crowdfunding campaigns). But friends convinced me that there were people out there that would help me and that were fans or friends and that I should go for it.  In the past I did these things on my own – and my home equity loan is proof of that, unfortunately! I had not recorded my own projects at a certain point because I just couldn’t afford it. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity that friends, fans, family and strangers have shown me and us.  I never could have done these projects without their help, and I am beyond grateful. It is certainly not an easy or comfortable feeling to have to ask for assistance in this way, but with the lack of record companies out there doing this anymore, it has kind of made it a modern reality.  

Hetko, Syracuse & Siegel will appear this Friday night, August 9th at Catskill Mountain Pizza Co., Woodstock, as part of the Hudson Valley Jazz Festival. For more information on the festival, go to www.hudsonvalleyjazzfest.org.

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