in performance: the manhattan transfer

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

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

In order to bend tradition, to fashion it into something even remotely your own, you first have to know it like a family member. That’s what the Manhattan Transfer, with its blend of jazz, swing, gospel and pop, has done over the last 38 years. Last night at the Singletary Center for the Arts, the veteran vocal troupe simply adjusted the scope of its music rather than the intent. With its own popular material taking up less than one-third of the 90 minute concert, the Transfer designed an immensely spirited program of seasonal music with help from a solid backup quartet and an orchestra comprised of University of Kentucky faculty and students.

It was a pretty natural alteration, mind you, as so much popular Christmas material maintains strong connections to the Swing Era that has always been a prime inspiration for the singers. Once those styles were fully embraced, the Transfer ably moved on to other restorative turf. For instance, the show-opening swing of Irving Berlin’s Happy Holiday was a prime fixture of the 1942 movie musical Holiday Inn. That film also introduced the world to White Christmas. So, the Transfer tackled that one too. But instead of treating it as a tired, sentimental warhorse, the group transformed it to a light, balmy and thoroughly convincing bossa nova.

While the group’s obvious harmonic agility was on generous display, the singers’ individual personalities were also given considerable room to roam. Alan Paul, who displayed the group’s strongest vocal range, had a field day singing lyrics he wrote to the melody of a Paul Desmond saxophone solo during Santa Claus is Coming to Town. By channeling idol Eartha Kitt a bit, Cheryl Bentyne had plenty of vampish fun on the 1953 holiday hit Santa Baby. And in an earthier blues turn, group founder Tim Hauser set up the hearty r&b foundation of Charles Brown’s Merry Christmas Baby. Best of all was Janis Siegel’s exhaustive, but thoroughly unforced swing serenade on Sleigh Ride.

So arresting was the holiday spirit that when Birdland erupted late in the program, you forgot how similarly absorbing the group’s own music was. To be fair, the tune was composed and initially recorded as an instrumental work by the late Weather Report keyboardist Josef Zawinul in 1977. But the Transfer’s 1980 vocalese arrangement did more than simply unveil the group’s greatest performance dynamics last night, including a tireless lead from Siegel. It also displayed a load of luscious drive from the horn section, which revamped melodies Zawinul had originally written for synthesizers. It was as rich a display for the brass and wind players as The Christmas Song, which immediately preceded Birdland, was for the string section.

Two mainstay Transfer hit revisions, Operator (again with Siegel in the driver’s seat) and Java Jive, were served as encores, sealing the show’s unavoidable sense of pop nostalgia, its scholarly jazz command and, most of all, its honestly inviting Yuletide vibe.

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