The two groups are essentially a generation removed from each other with stylistically preferences that reflect sometimes markedly different inspirations. But Cheryl Bentyne didn’t take notice of that when she and the other members of the Manhattan Transfer began rehearsals with the singers from Take 6 for their current collaborative tour. Their alliance is, in all senses of the term, harmonious.
“I think what we bring differently to our performances is pretty obvious,” Bentyne said. “In the Transfer, have the four voices – two women and two men – that create a real horn section type sound. But with Take 6, there is this incredible, immediate harmony because they’re all men and they’re all singing within their own structure of ranges. It goes all over the scales. The groups are different, but we’re from the same mother of harmony.”
A blend of jazz and pop harmony with a largely unparalleled command of styles like vocalese (the singing of lyrics to tunes initially composed as instrumental works) made the Transfer – Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Trist Curless – one of the most distinctive vocal groups of the past four decades. Vocalese was also a passion of group founder Tim Hauser, who died in 2014. Tonight’s Norton Center show will be the quartet’s first regional performance without him.
“Tim was kind of my father/brother figure when I came in into the group (in 1978),” Bentyne said. “He helped define my role by bringing songs for me as a soloist because I didn’t know exactly how I would fit in. They obviously knew how I would fit in, but I certainly didn’t. He had a lot of ideas for me and was always in my corner. He was absolutely insane with information, too. I think he had some kind of photographic or maybe phonographic memory. He had every song he had ever heard lodged somewhere in his brain, along with the B-sides of those records.”
Perhaps the definitive vocalese statement of the Transfer is “Birdland.” Composed by Josef Zawinul for his fusion band Weather Report in 1977, the song was recast with lyrics by Jon Hendricks (of the famed ‘50s/’60s vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, seen by many as a precursor to the Transfer).
“I walked in for an audition with them one day in Los Angeles and sang a few songs. After that, we sat down and Janis played ‘Birdland’ for me, the Weather Report version, just to get my response. I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great song. You guys are going to sing that?’ So I was thrilled. Jon Hendricks wrote a story about Birdland and the history of jazz in New York City. When we got the lyrics, just pages and pages of them, it blew us away. Even before I was in the group, I don’t think they had done anything of that caliber. It took us quite awhile to break it down and start singing it. Now, it is our foundation piece.”
The song is also part of a musical legacy than has inspired numerous subsequent vocal groups, including Take 6.
“We were talking at dinner last night and Mark Kibble, who is Take 6’s arranger, spoke about seeing us when he was beginning one of his first vocal groups. Hearing that kind of gave us a sense of, ‘Yeah, we really did start something 45 years ago.’
“This group was Tim Hauser’s dream – a vocal group with two men, two women, based on the Count Basie sax section that sang all kinds of music. I think a music teacher told him that once you become categorized, you become disposable. So it was a conscious effort for us, and an easy one, to do all kinds of music with the basis of it always being harmony. We could do almost anything with harmony. We stretch out on all of our different styles because we can. With four voices and harmony you can do that.”
Manhattan Transfer and Take 6 perform at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $39-$65. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692
or go to nortoncenter.com.