(Ronnie Scott’s, May 8th 2010, review by John L Walters)
There’s no act remotely like New York’s Manhattan Transfer. The close harmony vocal quartet can do everything from Doo-Wop to Broadway schmaltz, from big band swing to fusion. In a long career, they’ve steered a Grammy-encrusted course between jazz credibility and the sweet smell of pop success.
Yet for their short run at Ronnie’s, any fears they might rest on their past glories were swiftly dismissed by the opening Spain, a complex, exhilarating tune reinvented – with new lyrics and a beatbox shuffle – for The Chick Corea Songbook, (Four Quarters) their latest album. Another Corea tune, One Step Closer, featured lyrics by Man Tran founder Tim Hauser and Van Dyke Parks.
They wear a ferocious musical intelligence and erudition on their elegant sleeves: they are masters of vocalese, the art of singing new words to improvised melodies. They tipped a hat to Annie Ross (at Ronnie’s just a few days ago) with the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross version of Horace Silver’s Doodlin’, also name-checking pioneers such as King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson.
Manhattan Transfer have continued to develop this craft, commissioning Jon Hendricks to write vocalese words for an extraordinary version of Tutu: Cheryl Bentyne delivered an almost shamanic invocation of Miles Davis’s solo from that landmark track. Sing Joy Spring featured Janis Siegel, clothing the improvisations of another great trumpeter, Clifford Brown, with Hendricks’s Shakespeare-quoting lyrics.
They can do simple and fun, too: Siegel sang Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You with guitar accompaniment. A couple of numbers pay tribute to the 1950s street-corner vocal groups of Harlem and Brooklyn, formed a cappella, as Hauser explained, “because the kids couldn’t afford instruments”.
They closed the show with their joyful version of Weather Report’s Birdland and an encore medley of hits, including Chanson D’Amour and Tuxedo Junction. If this is autumn of their career, it still sounds remarkably like summer.