Cheryl Bentyne - vocals; Tim Hauser - vocals; Alan Paul - vocals; Janis Siegel - vocals; Alex Blake - bass; Yaron Gershovsky - keyboards; Wayne Johnson - guitar; Tom Kellock - keyboards; Don Roberts - horns; Art Rodriguez - drums
It took almost a decade for the Manhattan Transfer to hit their stride, but thanks to the vision and persistence of founder Tim Hauser, the group eventually became one of the finest and most celebrated jazz vocal groups of all time. At the start of the 1970s, the initial lineup of the group featured five vocalists, but their approach was too stylistically diverse and as a result, failed to catch the public's attention. The group broke up shortly thereafter. When they re-emerged as a four-piece, featuring Janis Siegel (alto), Laurel Masse (soprano), and Alan Paul (tenor), in addition to Hauser, things began to jell. They began building a strong following at many of the hippest New York City nightclubs, which is where they caught the attention of Atlantic Record's Ahmet Ertegun, which resulted in a new record deal and an association that would last many years. The group's self-titled Atlantic debut achieved a modest hit with the 1950s gospel tune, "Operator," but they were still difficult to categorize. Extensive touring, a short-lived television series and additional album releases, which now included collaborations with Jon Hendricks (of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame, who essentially originated the vocalese style back in the '50s) increased their popularity, but they were still struggling to survive.
In 1978, Masse was injured in a car accident, which limited her activities and she ultimately left the group, leaving Hauser, Siegal and Paul in search of a new soprano vocalist. The group relocated to California where they discovered Cheryl Bentyne, the daughter of a jazz bandleader who had the experience and technical facilities they were searching for. With Bentyne on board, they recorded the next Manhattan Transfer album, Extensions, which would be a breakthrough hit, earning the group their first two Grammy Awards. By 1983, the time of this recording, the Manhattan Transfer had scored additional hits, had several more Grammies under their belts and had won the Playboy and Downbeat "Best Jazz Vocal Group" categories three years in a row. Atlantic released the group's first greatest hits album, while the group went on to record their next album, Bodies and Souls.
This performance, recorded during the summer of 1983, perfectly encapsulates this first decade of Manhattan Transfer's illustrious career. The recording kicks off with this talented band flexing their muscles on a jazz-fusion style instrumental. This first 15 minutes of this recording primarily features solo breaks so that each bandmember can warm up his chops, prior to the vocalists taking the stage. The set kicks off proper with Andres Williams' humorous dance tune, "Bacon Fat," which sets a lighthearted playful mood. This is followed by another humorous element: a hipster monologue by Hauser, similar to the character perfected by Tom Waits during the mid-1970s. This opening sequence prefaces what the group does best, singing lyrics over jazz solos, modeling their distinctive vocals on a big band horn section sound. This immediately becomes apparent on the Jimmy Giuffre and Jon Hendricks' composition "Four Brothers." Next up is the group's signature song, "Birdland," based on Weather Report's compelling jazz-fusion instrumental. With lyrics added by Jon Hendricks and vocally arranged by Siegel, it is obvious why this became the most played jazz record of 1980 and remains just as popular to the present day.
Throughout the remainder of this set, the group offer up a diverse selection of standards, as well as their unusual pop hit, "Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone" and the even bigger hit, "Boy From New York City." However, it is some of the lesser known material that often best displays the group's originality and great diversity. Check out the Latin flavored "Shaker Song" or their utterly unique take on Bonnie Raitt's smoldering "The Glow." Toward the end of the set, they reveal remarkable vocal skills on a cover of the Skyliner's doo-wop classic, "I'll Go On My Lonely Way," featuring Alan Paul's remarkable falsetto. Janis Siegal also shines on a bluesy take of "In The Dark." Infectious readings of "Trickle, Trickle" and "Doodlin'" display the group's ability to perfectly balance humor and technical skill.
This was all prior to the group's true vocal masterpiece, Vocalese, but Manhattan Transfer had developed a distinctive sound and already had the innate ability to fully engage an audience. As well received as the group's albums were during this era, this recording reveals the dynamic energy that could only be experienced at their live performances.