The Manhattan Transfer
They’ve always been known as the epitome of cool. The Manhattan Transfer, with its harmonies and versatility that incorporates a variety of genres from pop to rock to jazz, R & B and rock ‘n roll, swing, symphonic and a cappella music, has been hard to pigeon-hole, and they like it that way. They were the first group to win Grammy Awards in the pop and jazz categories in one year, for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with vocals for “Boy from New York City” and Best Jazz Performance by a Duo or Group for “Until I Met You.” Their 1985 album, Vocalese, made Grammy history as the most-nominated album in one year with 12 nominations. The album featured Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter and the County Basie Orchestra and changed the perception of The Manhattan Transfer from huge pop artists to formidable jazz singers.
Today, the band is made up of Alan Paul, tenor, Janis Siegel, soprano, Cheryl Bentyne, soprano and new member bass vocalist Trist Curless, who joined the group in 2014 after the death of its founder, Tim Hauser. Their new album, The Junction, dedicated to Hauser, was produced by five-time Grammy winner Mervyn Warren. “It’s a whole different ball game, but one we feel is still musically very viable and exciting,” Siegel said. “The concept of ‘Junction’ is that this is a special meeting place, a junction of merging our 4 ½ decade musical legacy with something new. It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition because Tim is irreplaceable and he and Trist are very different singers. We weren’t looking to replace Tim’s unique personality but found in Trist someone who could add a new element to the group and take care of the bottom of the quartet with his true bass.”
For Curless, it was not about changing the sound for which The Manhattan Transfer has been known for so long. “My personal desire was that the album would sound like The Manhattan Transfer, keeping what they’ve done, but bringing a new energy that would come naturally with my strengths as an artist, becoming a part of theirs.”
While The Manhattan Transfer has always been known for its re-imagining of classics like “Java Jive,” “Birdland,” “The Boy from New York City,” “Twilight Zone,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” and “Route 66,” one of their most acclaimed albums was The Offbeat of Avenues, which featured original works as well as covers. The Junction hearkens back to that history, with five of the songs written or co-written by members of the group. Among the songs is “Swing Balboa,” co-written by Paul, which mixes classic swing with an edgy, modern electro-swing vibe and the up-tempo “Shake Your Booty (Galactic Vocal Version,)” which Siegel co-wrote and sings lead on and which incorporates an element of “Star Wars.”
The album also contains cool twists on the familiar. They take the crowd-pleasing “Tequila” and bring new energy to it, with new lyrics by Paul in a medley of his original song, “The Way of the Booze.” There are also more pointed social commentaries, including XTC’s “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” and Rickie Lee Jones’ “Ugly Man.”
For Siegel, performing at the Grammy Awards in 1979 was a personal highlight, as was singing twice at the White House and performing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 with Little Jimmy Scott. “We were blessed to know giants of the business, working with Ahmet Ertegun and Arif Mardin and performing with artists who are no longer here like Laura Nyro,” she said. “We caught the tail end of an era.” They’ve also helped to define one, performing with musical greats Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler, Phil Collins, B.B. King, Chaka Khan, James Taylor, and Frankie Valli.
For Bentyne, who had to leave the group for a time for treatment for Hodgins’ lymphoma, there is a theme to this work. “Democracy is the fabric of the group, and has been from the beginning,” she said. “We all have a different take on music and appreciate different styles, so each member brings something to the table that is unique. We have tremendous faith in that process. This album is completely us, a true snapshot of who we are right now, having survived so many hardships but looking forward to exciting new chapters in the band’s story.
They welcome you to come along for the ride. Subway tokens not required.