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Beginning with their first performances in the early 1970s, The Manhattan Transfer has become the cornerstone of contemporary music. Originally launched by Tim Hauser in 1969, Hauser, Alan Paul, Janis Siegel and Laurel Masse were the group by 1972. Cheryl Bentyne joined the group in 1979 after Laurel Masse left. Known for their amazing harmony and versatility, incorporating pop, jazz, R&B, rock and roll, swing, symphonic, and a cappella music, the group was signed by the legendary Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic Records. The group made their recording debut with the self-titled album in 1975. Known primarily as an East Coast cult act, they expanded their following by starring in their own 1975 CBS-TV variety series as a summer replacement for the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. Starting as an underground group in New York City, The Manhattan Transfer garnered international popularity when “Chanson D’Amour” from the 1976 Coming Out album became a number one hit in Europe.
One of the co-writers on The Junction—the group’s new album which draws inspiration in part from The Transfer’s classic 1975 version of Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction”—is the group’s new member, bass vocalist Trist Curless. Curless began subbing on the road for the late band founder Tim Hauser in 2013, officially joining after Hauser’s passing in late 2014.
Welcoming Curless—a founding member of famed Los Angeles a cappella group m-pact—to the fold, Janis Siegel (alto), Alan Paul (tenor) and Cheryl Bentyne (soprano) embrace a new dynamic and fresh possibilities for their legendary sound that artfully incorporates his low range into their established blend. The Junction, dedicated to the memory of Hauser, was produced by another master vocalist, five-time Grammy winner Mervyn Warren, a renowned film composer, arranger and producer. Warren, one of the founders of gospel/R&B a cappella legends Take 6, in addition to his intricate vocal arrangements, wrote the album’s first single, the soulful ballad “Sometimes I Do.”
“It’s a whole different ball game, but one we feel is still musically very viable and exciting,” Siegel says. Paul adds, “The concept of The Junction is that this is a special meeting place, a junction of merging our four-and-a-half-decade musical legacy with something new. It wasn’t exactly a seamless transition because Tim is irreplaceable, and he and Trist are very different singers. We weren’t looking to replace Tim’s unique personality, but found in Trist someone who could add a new element to the group, and take care of the bottom of the quartet with his true bass.” Curless reflects, “My personal desire was that the album would sound like The Manhattan Transfer, keeping what they’ve done, but bringing a new energy that would come naturally with my strengths as an artist, becoming a part of theirs.”
Coinciding with the release of The Junction is a highly anticipated national tour; and PBS Special titled “The Summit,” which features Take 6 in a dual show. Part of the public television network’s legendary Soundstage concert series, “The Summit” was taped before a live studio audience at WTTW’s Grainger Studio in Chicago in January 2017. The two groups, which have been touring their richly produced, interactive vocal extravaganza for the past three years, create a unique brotherhood onstage, with songs incorporating their combined 10-part harmony, lively segments including “Battle of the Bands” and a repertoire that includes songs neither band has ever recorded.
While well-renowned for their spectacular re-imaginings of classics like “Java Jive,” “Birdland,” “The Boy From New York City,” “Twilight Zone,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “Route 66,” one of their most acclaimed albums was 1991’s The Offbeat of Avenues, which featured numerous group originals amidst the cover songs. In many ways, The Junction harkens back to that approach, with members of the group writing or co-writing five songs.
Paul’s co-written “Swing Balboa (Down on Riverside)” mixes the classic Balboa swing sound (which originated in Los Angeles in the 1920s) with edgy, modern electro-swing. Paul’s lyrics also re-fashion a ‘50s Martin Denny recording called “Paradise Found” into the hopeful and calming, tropical flavored, “The Paradise Within.” Bentyne penned sly lyrics to saxophonist Grace Kelly’s moody, film noir-ish “Blues for Harry Bosch” which reference numerous classic detective movies. Siegel co-wrote and sings lead on the hip, up-tempo “Shake Your Boogie (Galactic Vocal Version),” whose story cleverly incorporates a playful element of Star Wars.
The songs that The Manhattan Transfer chose to record with cool new twists, and Warren’s sparkling vocal arrangements, perfectly reflect the band’s forward-thinking aesthetic. They launch the 10-track set by finding new joy in harmonizing the classic rap of Us3’s early ‘90s hip-hop/jazz hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” (based on Herbie Hancock’s soul-jazz treasure “Cantaloop Island”), which the quartet fashions into “Cantaloop (Flip Out!)” They also bring newfound pleasures and party energy to the crowd pleaser, “Tequila,” with new lyrics by Paul in a medley with his original song “The Way of the Booze.” Balancing these optimistic bursts are more pointed social commentaries like XTC’s “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul” and Rickie Lee Jones’ harmonic and dissonant “Ugly Man.”
Defying easy genre categorizations, The Manhattan Transfer became the first act to win Grammy Awards in the pop and jazz categories in one year (1981) for “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” for “Boy From New York City” and “Best Jazz Performance Duo or Group” for “Until I Met You (Corner Pocket).” In 1985, their album Vocalese made history as the single greatest Grammy nominated album in history in one year with twelve nominations. Vocalese earned two Grammys: “Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group”; and “Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices” for “Another Night in Tunisia” (won by Bentyne and Bobby McFerrin). This album, which featured jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, and the Count Basie Orchestra, changed the perception of The Manhattan Transfer from superstar pop artists to formidable jazz singers.
For Siegel, performing “Birdland” in 1979 at The Grammy Awards was one of her personal highlights, along with singing twice at The White House, and performing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 with Little Jimmy Scott. She says the group was blessed to know giants of the music business. “Working with Ahmet Ertegun, Arif Mardin; artists who are no longer here like Laura Nyro,” she reflects. “We caught the tail end of an era.” The Manhattan Transfer has also sung with musical greats Tony Bennett, Smokey Robinson, Bette Midler, Phil Collins, B.B. King, Chaka Khan, James Taylor, and Frankie Valli of The Four Seasons.
“As our work on The Junction, and the theme of the album reflects—democracy is the fabric of the group, and has been from the beginning,” says Bentyne, who took leave of the group several times while undergoing treatment for Hodgkins’ lymphoma in the early 2010s, but has since made a complete recovery. “We all have a different take on music and appreciate different styles, so each member brings something to the table that is unique. We have tremendous faith in that process. This album is completely us, a true snapshot of who we are right now, having survived so many hardships, but looking forward to exciting new chapters in the band’s story. We all give great credit to our producer Mervyn Warren, without whom this project would not have come together as beautifully as it did. His participation, oversight, brilliant arrangements and production helped us make one of the strongest musical statements ever.”