first we take manhattan

the manhattan transfer: tim hauser, janis siegel, cheryl bentyne and alan paul

the manhattan transfer: tim hauser, janis siegel, cheryl bentyne and alan paul

The most humbling aspect surrounding the Manhattan Transfer’s ongoing international popularity is the fact its members initially counted themselves lucky just to have a fanbase here at home.

Take singer Tim Hauser, the one-time Madison Avenue marketing executive who started the first Manhattan Transfer group in 1969. That ensemble didn’t last long. But when a second lineup began to establish itself with a blend of robust jazz harmonies, pop appeal and, eventually, scores of stylistic inspirations and variations, the world came calling.

When we caught up with Hauser earlier this month to discuss Manhattan Transfer’s final concert of the year – a Saturday performance of holiday music and more that will team the group with 25 members of the University of Kentucky Orchestra – he was out of town. He was way out of town. Hauser, in fact, had just arrived at his hotel in Tallinn, Estonia following a flight from the group’s previous destination: Tel Aviv, Israel.

Before making its way to the Singletary Center next weekend, the Manhattan Transfer will play Finland, Slovakia and Russia.

“It never occurred to me when we started that we would be an international band,” Hauser said. “Never. My visions back then as far as popularity went were very limited. Now, musically, they weren’t limited at all.

“What I was looking at then musically was what we’re doing now. It’s grown since then. But the various styles we address were already there – vocalese, rhythm and blues, swing, big band, four part harmonies and gospel harmony. I thought it would be great just to get steady work in the United States with that.”

The second Manhattan Transfer was formed in 1972 when Hauser was paying bills as much by driving taxis in New York as he was through performance work. Save for one lineup change – Cheryl Bentyne for Laurel Masse in 1978 – the membership of the Manhattan Transfer has remained consistent through the years. Janis Siegel and Alan Paul complete the group.

“There is a very high level of communication when the four of us are onstage,” Hauser said. “Of course, it helps that we really like each other. We’re friends offstage. But when we’re onstage, the communication becomes pretty linear. By that, I mean, we don’t falter. It’s a sacred place for us.”

While the Manhattan Transfer’s music may be rooted in jazz, undercurrents of pop, in almost every sense of the term, are strong. Hauser absorbed the music of vocal greats like Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra in his youth. But it took a voice from his generation to make the prospect of a professional singing career seem real and possible. That voice belonged to Frankie Lymon, the African-American soprano from Harlem that found stardom at the age of 14 in 1956 with the Teenagers hit Why Do Fools Fall in Love.

“I listened to Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington. But they were adults when I was a kid. I couldn’t grasp the idea of singing like them because they were just on another level. But when you’re a kid listening to another kid, you go, ‘I can do that.’ I mean, it’s all still incredible, but at least you can aspire to it.

“Franklie Lymon was one of the greatest singers I ever heard. At his age, he was singing and phrasing like (Swing Era bandleader and vocalist) Billy Eckstine. He was remarkable.”

The links between jazz and pop quickly became a multi-generational – and, in some cases, multi-cultural – journey for the Manhattan Transfer. The group brought lyrics and vocal life to a celebrated jazz fusion instrumental (Weather Report’s Birdland) and crafted pop hits out of everything from vintage doo-wop (a cover of the Ad Libs’ The Boy From New York City) to TV themes (Paul’s Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone). It revived standards (a 1981 a capella version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square), devoted entire albums to specific jazz styles (1985’s Grammy winning Vocalese and 1997’s Swing) and even diverted into Brazilian music (the 1987 album Brasil) and children’s songs (1994’s The Manhattan Transfer Meet Tubby the Tuba).

So it should follow that the Manhattan Transfer would visit holiday music on 1992’s The Christmas Album and 2005’s An Acapella Christmas. The latter, true to its title, put exclusive emphasis on the intimacy, playfulness and swing of the group’s harmonies. The odd sleigh bells and finger snaps served as the only accompaniment.

“Music is always a challenge,” Hauser said. “I mean, that is certainly true when it comes to performance. But that’s a given. You also have to develop arrangements that are either fresh enough to put a new spin on a tune or, by virtue of the voicings, are able to make it sound so rich that someone might say, ‘This is the one of the best versions of that tune I’ve ever heard.’ No matter how good you sing, if you don’t have a good arrangement, nothing else will make any difference.”

The challenge awaiting the Manhattan Transfer in 2009 will be a recording devoted to the music of jazz keyboardist and composer Chick Corea. Hauser hinted that Corea himself may even make an appearance on the project.

“You know, I never used to think about how far this band would go,” Hauser said. “That just never occurred to me. I was always thinking of it in the now, if you will. It wasn’t until we became really successful that we started wondering how long all this would last.”

The Manhattan Transfer performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 20 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $45, $50, $60. Call: (859) 257-4929.

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