Those hoping to hear the Manhattan Transfer end its concert at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre with a rousing version of Joe Zawinul's "Birdland"--a tune that, for better or worse, has become its signature--may have been disappointed Sunday.
The foursome opened with the fusion-meets-vocalese tribute to the home of be-bop, neatly clearing the decks so they could focus on newer material from its recent "The Offbeat of Avenues" album. This isn't to say that its previous achievements weren't entirely ignored, but rather that a mix of the new and the familiar helped sustain the level that "Birdland" established.
The fresh material, as presented here, has all the hip lyrical sophistication and glossy harmonic color the Transfer is known for. Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne teamed to write the lyrics for "Sassy" (presumably a tribute to Sarah Vaughan, although no mention of her name was made), and the tune succeeded on snappy delivery and a smooth, tightly woven chorus that balanced the beat-heavy lyric. "10 Minutes Till the Savages Come" painted a dark urban scene, cut by Siegel's pointed scatting. Its slightly unsettling mood was balanced by the serene feel and hopeful lyrics (written by member Alan Paul) of "The Quietude."
Less successful was "Gentleman With a Family," with its maudlin recognition of the homeless, written by Bentyne and collaborator Marc Jordan. Although its political consciousness is admirable, the song's sanctifying of the destitute ("an apostle to these worn out souls" as one line puts it) just obscures the problem.
Bentyne, without her vocal teammates, was more convincing on "Fever," grinding out the suggestive lyrics with more than a little heat of her own. Paul's best moments came when taking the lead against doo-wop backgrounds, and Siegel's trumpet-like scat deliveries were rich and on the money. Tim Hauser's devilish, sometimes conversational bass delivery added humor and a touch of intrigue.
The Transfer's six-piece band contributed heavily to the evening's success--but it sometimes overshadowed the vocalists. Highlights included bassist Alex Blake's strumming on upright and alto saxophonist Chris Hunter, once a member of the Gil Evans band, adding his soulful horn at times to serve as a fifth voice with Hauser and company.
The vocalists answered encore requests with the kind of material they do best--such as a groovy "Route 66" with lots of rhythmic drive and a harmonically rich "Embraceable You." Then, without Hauser, Bentyne, Paul and Siegel, the band struck up "Birdland."
Hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco opened the evening's program with his driving, no-nonsense quartet exploring frenzied be-bop exercises and a ballad. DeFrancesco's outfit--trumpeter J.R. Henry, guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham (DeFrancesco handles the bass chores with the foot pedals on his Hammond)--is as hungry as they come.
Bollenback worked strong Wes Montgomery chordal stunts into riveting statements, and Henry showed both breath and bluster. Yet the organist took the short set's best solo, stirring up long blues licks that he paced with well-timed intervals. DeFrancesco, who was only 17 when he worked with Miles Davis, paid tribute to his former boss with "Don't Stop Me Now," a ballad that had him doubling on muted trumpet in a style eerily reminiscent of the late bandleader.