The Manhattan Transfer Says Scat to Pop and Struts Off with Three Jazzy Grammys
They lack a sexy video, a current Top 40 single, a huge teenage following and a pounding rock beat. But anyone who says a vocal quartet like Manhattan Transfer can't make it big with the masses failed to watch last month's Grammy Awards. Nominated 12 times in five categories, the group's harmonizing singers and their collaborators heard their names called three times after those magic words, "And the winner is..." Understandably dazed and teary-eyed, they themselves could hardly believe that Vocalese, their least commercial and most jazzy album in years, won the same number of trophies as such crowd-pleasing entries as We Are the World and Phil Collins.
Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun probably couldn't believe it either. If someone had promised him that Vocalese would sell 500,000 copies worldwide and win Grammys for Best Jazz Male Vocal, Best Jazz Group Vocal and Best Vocal Arrangement, he might have been more gung ho at the start. Though eventually supportive, Ertegun balked when the group first proposed an album arranged in "vocalese," a little-known singing technique in which voices emulate the sound of jazz instrumental arrangements. An earlier vocalese song, Bird-land, won two 1981 Grammys for the quartet. But an entire album in that style was a risky departure from the Transfer's otherwise balanced and proven mix of pop and jazz.
"I felt real confident that people were going to dig it," says Transfer baritone Tim Hauser, who helped persuade Ertegun to back the project. "All we had to do was to do it well." To reach that goal, Manhattan Transfer—Hauser, 44, Alan Paul, 36, Janis Siegel, 33, and Cheryl Bentyne, 32—went to the master. Jon Hendricks, 64, and his great '50s group, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, were responsible for popularizing the vocalese style introduced by singer Eddie Jefferson in the '40s. Hendricks agreed to write lyrics for 10 songs, including the Transfer's favorite instrumental solos, originally recorded by such jazz heros as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Then Hendricks taught the singers to wail like the Bird's sax, blare like Miles's trumpet and sparkle like Ray Charles's piano.
"I kept telling Alan Paul to sound like a trombone," recalls Hendricks. "Finally, he did it so superbly that he was too correct. I had to tell him to put a vocal quality back in it." Backed by virtuosos, including Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Ron Carter on bass, the singers at last got their album performance down cool. But the tongue-twisting speed of the solos they mimic still keeps the tension level high. "I panic if I lose my place," says Hauser. "The other night I stumbled so badly, I didn't even scat it, I just gagged it."
Manhattan Transfer, named after the 1925 novel by John Dos Passos, became a jazz ensemble in 1972 when singer Laurel Masse climbed into a Manhattan cab driven by Tim Hauser. After discovering their mutual musical interest, they decided to try singing with Masse's friend Janis Siegel, then a waitress. Soon after, they recruited Alan Paul, who left a stint in Broadway's Grease. "After six months of practicing," says Hauser, "we said we'd perform and if we got a good reaction, we'd continue. If we didn't, we'd say goodbye." Their first gig was a success, as was their first album, which included the hit single Operator. Masse is the only Transfer member to quit; she left for a comparatively low-key solo career in 1978 and thus missed Transfer's greatest honors. With soprano Bentyne in Masse's spot, the group's music has won 10 Grammys since 1981. They are also one of the most popular acts in Europe and draw capacity audiences worldwide, even in years when they don't produce a record.
The Transfers hope to break a new record this year as the first Western group to do a multicity tour of mainland China (Wham! only went to Peking and Canton). Even if the Chinese don't yet speak the language of vocalese, they may well share the feelings of the Transfer's demanding mentor, Hendricks, when, after nine months of grinding studio work, he finally heard the group's entire album. "My reaction," he says, "was that all's right with the world."
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