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Together and solo, the Transfer still cooks

Couldn't Be Hotter
Couldn't Be Hotter
By the Manhattan Transfer

Telarc Records: 2003

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Friday Night Special
Friday Night Special
By Janis Siegel

Telarc Records: 2003

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Talk of the Town
Talk of the Town
By Cheryl Bentyne

Telarc Records: 2003

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This review first appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Turbula.

For an entire generation, the Manhattan Transfer has personified jazz vocalese. And with crossover hits like "Boy From New York City" and "Birdland," the foursome has also proved that if given the opportunity, the American public will go ga-ga over classy, upscale jazz.

The band's not had a hit in years, and their new live album is unlikely to get them airplay on many non-jazz stations – but "Couldn't Be Hotter" also shows that this quartet has lost none of its edge, creativity or eternal supper-club brand of classiness.

No other band has so seamlessly blended the vocalese stylings of the Boswell and Andrews Sisters with modern sounds, and they again meet that standard here. From Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald, Hoagy Carmichael to Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman to Louis Armstrong, Manhattan Transfer delves deeply into the hip side of jazz history. Each song, even Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," gets a fully contemporary arrangement. And it never seems forced or inelegant – rather, it's as if these were brand-new compositions just brought to the band's attention here in the 21st Century, and this is the approach they came up with. It's a wholly organic, completely modern sound that both respects the songs and challenges them at the same time. (And Janis Siegel's over-the-top take on "A-Tisket" is likely to have your stereo on full volume; her trumpet-like scat solo will give you the shivers.)

The only real holdover from their greatest hits collections would be their version of "Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone"; the rest of the set is either a more obscure tune from their earlier period ("Don't Go"), new to the book, or taken from their more jazz-oriented 1980s and '90s period.

What makes this such an incredible album though is the energy, creative spark and pure fun the band is still having some thirty years after first setting out, the last 25 with the same lineup. The fires clearly still burn in all four of them, for Siegel Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne and Tim Hauser each display moments of such pure artistic inspiration that this may be the best live Transfer album yet released.

It is at minimum, and quite inarguably, one of the best Manhattan Transfer recordings yet made in a remarkable career, and shows that the band remains a singular force of music.

     ~ ~ ~

Janis Siegel was always the cute member of Manhattan Transfer – like having Cyndi Lauper in a jazz vocalese group. During the height of their popularity in the mid- to late 1970s, with hits like "Boy From New York City," "Twilight Zone, Twilight Tone" and "Birdland," she was all youthful energy and exuberance.

If Siegel's mellowed a bit in the intervening decades, she's done so gracefully, classily. (And positively gorgeously, to boot.)

On her latest solo release, as in her previous recording for Telarc, she explores a softer, more reflective – more mature – side of jazz than she gets to do with the band. It's not just a different sound, but a different approach completely from what the band does – a whole other way of arranging and singing.

And actually, "Friday Night Special" is as different from 2002's "I Wish You Love" as it is from her work with Manhattan Transfer. While the 2002 release was anchored by the band of pianist Cedar Walton, and presented a straight-ahead environment for her singing, the latest effort is backed by organist Joey DeFrancesco's combo. You put a Hammond B3, saxophonist Houston Person and the hollow-body guitar of Russell Malone to work, and the set is going to positively ooze soul – which "Friday Night Special" certainly does.

The song selection is more contemporary than her previous outing, too – that one was more 1950s and '60s standards. On "Friday Night Special," the selection is a bit hipper, with songs by Bill Withers and Eddy Arnold, among others.

No matter. Siegel's supple, magnificent voice can handle anything you throw at her. Three decades in The Manhattan Transfer will do that for you. If "I Wish You Love" showed off Siegel's supper club smooth side, "Friday Night Special" proves that she can handle gritty soul just as easily. She even turns Erroll Garner's dark "Misty" into an upbeat, almost dance number.

Interestingly, on both her two most recent solo releases and the latest Manhattan Transfer release, Siegel displays an increasing touch of Ella Fitzgerald in her singing. The quiver, that slight hesitation that Fitzgerald used to convey ever so much more than a simple note could. No affectation here, either – this new, more expressive ability of Siegel's is simply the mark of a singer who's never stopped exploring, never stopped growing.

     ~ ~ ~

Cheryl Bentyne is the other female member of The Manhattan Transfer, and she also has a new solo album coming out – in early 2004.

And while it's unfair to compare it to Siegel's, their professional alignment makes it difficult not to listen to the two of them together.

Bentyne's is also far removed from the rah-rah type of jazz the Transfer sings; like Siegel's "I Wish You Love" from last year, "Talk of the Town" catches a '50s and '60s straight-ahead groove.

Possessed of a stronger, more technically proficient voice than her bandmate, Bentyne never seems as fully at ease on this album as she does in the band. Surrounded by talent like saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman and Chuck Mangione on flugelhorn, the talent level is certainly high enough to push and support her.

But the album seems a bit restrained, as if Bentyne never lays it all out.

There are some wonderful moments here, some stunningly beautiful music.

Bentyne just never achieves the kind of magic that you expect from a member of the Manhattan Transfer.