Valley Weekend : Hip, Fashion-Proof Group Still Dishing Up Eclectic Fare : Manhattan Transfer will play songs from its new album, ‘Tonin’, ' Friday at the Thousands Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, the vocal group Manhattan Transfer began carving out its place in the music world, concocting a new combination of campiness and hipness. All these years later, in and out of radio airplay, the basic vocal quartet of Cheryl Bentyne, Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, and Janis Siegel has kept alive a resilient, fashion-proof entity with a sturdy following.
The group will show up at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday for the final show of a long tour.
This is a group that has thrived happily in the margins of existing genres; never squarely in jazz, pop or soul camps, but dabbling in all of the above. Looking back over its 16-title discography, it’s been a varied affair, with no fear of sentiment and nostalgia.
It comes as no particular surprise, then, that the vocalists’ latest album, “Tonin,’ ” is a memory-laner aimed straight at the heart of the Baby Boom. Here, they take on versions of ‘60s pop and R&B; hits, with an all-star guest list, including Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, B.B. King, and James Taylor. They save the best for last--a benediction-like, a cappella version of Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows.”
Alan Paul spoke on the phone from Chicago, sounding a bit tour-weary, but still committed to the cause.
Do you feel that this group is as much a live phenomenon as a recording group, maybe more so than other groups?
I think so. That’s how we started. Probably, that’s our greatest strength, and that’s where we make most of our living. But we have a lot of reconsiderations about that. We’ve been together for 23 years and we just can’t schlep like we used to.
We all have families, and it makes it hard. We’re trying to find the alternatives, other ways of doing it, but the fact is that we’ve always been a performing group.
The new album, “Tonin’ ” is much more of a pop album than other projects. How did it come about?
It’s rhythm and blues and pop-oriented. . . . We always have our lists of concepts that we’ve thought about doing. One of those things was to do a rhythm and blues record. From the beginning of our career, we’ve always done rhythm and blues material, like “Operator.”
That was the direction that most intrigued [the record company], because, from a marketing standpoint, they would be able to have a greater run with that as opposed to our doing just another jazz album. In speaking further, the idea came that perhaps we should invite guests.
In a sense, in Manhattan Transfer, we’re all musicologists. We study vocal music and always have. This was some of the music that was most influential.
You had Mervyn Warren from Take 6 do some of your arranging. You usually handle those chores yourselves, don’t you?
Yeah, we do our own vocal arranging. Mervyn is a friend of ours and a wonderful arranger, because he brings into his work elements of rhythm and blues, gospel, and Gene Perling--he was the leader of the Hi-Los and Singers Unlimited. Very classic modern jazz voicings.
Specifically, on “The Thrill is Gone,” we wanted the sophistication of his writing and we wanted the rhythm and blues aspects that I think he does better than we do. Then we also commissioned him to do “God Only Knows.” We had confidence that he would bring to it something unique and special. We didn’t just want to do the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys do the Beach Boys better than anyone else.
Did the group’s eclectic musical tastes evolve over the years?
I think so, but also I think we always had a collective taste. That’s why we got together. Each of us, individually, always had a passion for harmony and harmonic exploration.
When I first got together with Tim, who was then hacking a cab, we recognized that we had a similar passion for swing music. I was kind of bored at this time. . . . So I said, “This could be fun. Let’s see what will happen.”
I don’t think any of us ever expected that it would do what it did.
No visions of grandeur?
No. I think we thought that it had potential, and we recognized the potential once we started performing. To our surprise, it just started expanding. It was amazing.
At that time, in the early ‘70s, there wasn’t really a precedent for what you were doing, was there?
You know, it was similar to right now. This period of time reminds me so much of 1972. Then, we were just getting out of Vietnam, people were lost. Everybody was kind of looking back. They were wanting to be nostalgic, to hold onto something from the past.
Consequently, all the folk clubs were turning into cabarets. People were trading in their blue jeans for tuxedos and gowns. Nobody had any money, but they were making believe that they did. They wanted to escape, and we were the perfect escape.
It’s similar today, I think. We’re heading for a new century, and people are overwhelmed by it. It’s like “before we head into this new century, let me just hold onto what we have. Let me just look back and recapitulate where we’ve been, so that I know where we’re going.”
Probably, that’s one of the reasons that we agreed to do “Tonin’.” We felt that this was the sensibility right now. This is what people want, what they’re in need of. It’s like we’re leaving something that has been very endearing, even through the pain.
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* WHAT: Manhattan Transfer.
* WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.
* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. in Thousand Oaks.
* HOW MUCH: Tickets are $30-$50.
* FYI: 449-ARTS (449-2787).