“Vinyl Testaments” is a series of articles looking at forgotten, overlooked, or otherwise obscure record albums.
Over thirty years together in their line-up, and they keep getting better. This album has some years on it now, but it’s probably my favorite, and it’s almost an afterthought. Six live cuts from Japan, a soundtrack leftover, and three more studio tracks for a short (under 30 minutes) record, but it’s a little blast of joy.
The Manhattan Transfer is a vocal group known for a jazzy approach to pop, or a pop approach to jazz, or swing, or doo-wop, or…something. The fact that they can’t be easily categorized is probably what keeps them from bigger fame; it can’t be a lack of talent. No Pro Tools here, just ability. This group, ManTran 2.1, has won a pile of Grammies for jazz and pop, sometimes in the same year. Originally formed in 1969 and producing one album, the only original member is Tim Hauser, a genuine swingin’ hipsterand original doo-wopper, who pulled together Alan Paul, a Broadway brat, Janis Siegel, a chanteuse, and Laurel Masse, who left the group to be replaced by Cheryl Bentyne, an angel in human form.
This group has been together since 1978 and has remained at the same level of popularity, more or less.
So why this album? The title alone intrigued me. It seemed to capture eloquently the two forces that drive the group, the swing/big band sounds they had explored with tracks like ‘Tuxedo Junction’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ and the street-corner harmonies of ‘Trickle Trickle’ andd ‘Boy from New York City.’ It always seemed they were just about to capture that perfect sound, and honestly they often get much closer on their live sets, so listening to this the first time and finding it was mostly live was a treat.
It starts with a chestnut, covered by anyone who ever stood or sat in front of a mike. ‘Route 66’ starts with a walking bass line and audience handclaps, joined by the vocals, drums and keys, all in a feather-light combo arrangement that brings out the joy of the song as it was intended, celebrating the open road and the freedom it offers. You can feel the air as it sweeps over the open ragtop and sing along with four of the best voices ever recorded.
Another live track, introduced in Japanese by Tim, was unfamiliar to me. Turns out ‘Jeannine’ is a standard from Duke Pearson, a jazz wunderkind composer. It sounds like you’d expect, a modern jazz from around 1960, presented here with an atmosphere-stretching sax solo and a lengthy vocal improve outro that shows the love and ability the singers have for the form.
Well, well, well, my cat fell in the well. That’s the next cut, a risqué little number that is really too silly to be offensive. It gets laughs every time because of its broad-wink nature. “I woke up this morning with a feeling of despair/I looked for my pussy but my pussy wasn’t there.” The instrumentation is similar, and the feeling in step with the first two numbers. It’s light, refreshing, crystal clear. Part of the joy of this record is in the production, as each voice and instrument stands out alone but also melds perfectly into the whole. A guitar line that sounds like Chet Atkins in his jazz mode lifts out of the mix to give another member of the operation his due.
Now that I’ve bragged on the lightness of the effort, the next track darkens things up nicely. ‘The Duke of Dubuque’ isn’t dark at all, but the arrangement, with the vocalists performing the brass parts, makes it heavier than its earlier partners. The strummed guitar and vocal rhythm moves the piece along at a brisk canter and keeps your foot tapping, if you don’t get up and dance.
The side closes with another standard, as they group takes on an icon with ‘How High the Moon.’ Invoking Ella but with a guitar solo from Wayne Johnson that also pays respect to Les Paul, the piece isn’t something to tackle lightly but Janis and the band have no problems. Honestly, I can’t imagine what would be impossible for them.
From the Bop to the Doo-Wopp side. ‘Baby Come Back to Me (The Morse Code of Love)’ is a ringer. From the Capris, who had one hit in the rock and roll era and actually disbanded before they knew it, this song was their attempted comeback recorded long after the style had been filed away in history but sounds like it came straight off the am radio in 1955. It’s terrific and sounds glorious here with a primitive drum kit, piano jingles, and mostly vocals, like it should be. Alan takes the lead with his warm Dionesque tones. Complete with turnaround stops as the bass carries it all, the Belmonts would have torn this up.
ManTran step even farther back with the next cut, pulling a side from Calvin Boze, a contemporary of Louis Jordan. ‘Safronia B’ is a real jump blues with squeaky saxes, upbeat drums, and a catchy chorus (‘I surrender, I surrender’) to make you dance until you can’t drink anymore. Tim is the lead here, using his jiving voice. It’s a fun recording and it shows in the performance.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, it’s a Cheryl Bentyne showpiece. First appearing on their eponymous 1975 release, this is a midtempo love song with flourishes from the rest of the group and a stunning lead from Cheryl. It’s a simple melody and nothing new in the lyrics, but the woman’s voice is astonishing.
‘That’s the Way It Goes’ is the weakest cut on the album, but at that the harmonies are perfect as always and it fits the style well. I’d rather have had a live version of ‘Trickle Trickle,’ but this is no dealbreaker.
Closing out the album is ‘Unchained Melody’ as it was recorded by Vito and the Salutations, uptempo and rocking. With Tim contributing the ‘bo-bo’ bass and the falsetto lead from Alan, it’s a match for the 1963 version. It is the same song as the Righteous Brothers’ version, but the arrangement takes it to another arena entirely. If you’re addicted to the lugubrious version it may take you a long time—or forever—to like this one. As another great doo-wop cover, though, it’s excellent.
And that’s it. At just under a half-hour, this is a quick trip through a pack of great vocal tunes. Collectively this group has close to two centuries of performing behind them and their knowledge of their field’s techniques, history, and potential comes through in every performance. If you’re a Broadway fan, a Gleek, an Idol/Talent watcher—check this out. Michael Bublé and Susan Boyle are fine, but these guys are better.