Four voices, 30 years, no boundaries

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Four voices, 30 years, no boundaries

The term “pastiche” refers to a literary, artistic, musical or architectural work that imitates the style of a previous work. It is also the title of an early Manhattan Transfer album that made it into the European top 10 in the 1970s. Aptly named, too. No matter how hard music critics try, no one can seem to pin Manhattan Transfer down to a singular style or genre, because they navigate the whole spectrum from bebop to doo-wop to swing, jazz and pop.
Who are these dynamic musicians? None other than contemporary music’s premiere vocal ensemble. Manhattan Transfer, coming to Seoul Sunday, is well known in a cappella circles for its signature style of vocalese, a style of music that sets lyrics to previously recorded jazz instrumental pieces, although much of its music has also been accompanied by big band and pop orchestras.
Manhattan Transfer consists of four voices: founder Tim Hauser sings bass, Alan Paul sings tenor, Janis Siegel, a nine-time Grammy award winner, sings alto and Cheryl Bentyne has been the group’s soprano since replacing Laurel Masse, who quit in 1978 to pursue a solo career.
The groundwork was laid for the group as it exists today when Mr. Hauser, at the tender age of 15, organized a teenage doo-wop/rock group called The Criterions, who enjoyed mild success on the New York charts in the late ’50s, and foreshadowed Mr. Hauser’s future in music. After a stint in the Air Force and in marketing, he felt the pull of the New York music scene. “I was 28 and figured if I wanted to be a musician, it was now or never,” he has been quoted as saying.
The original group of five members cut one album called “Junkin’,” but it was poorly integrated stylistically and did not catch on. The group soon dissolved, and Mr. Hauser continued with odd jobs to support his music career, including a job as a taxi driver.
As luck would have it, his fare one evening was Laurel Masse, an aspiring singer who was familiar with “Junkin’.” They got to talking, made a few more connections, and Manhattan Transfer was officially born in 1972.
They enjoyed something of a cult following in clubs around New York, until a representative from Atlantic Records offered them a deal.
After Cheryl Bentyne replaced Ms. Masse in 1978, the group recorded “Extensions,” which won two Grammys and included what has come to be known as their signature song, “Birdland.” Another highly recognizable hit of theirs is “Boy From New York City,” which broke into the pop top 10 in 1981 and earned them another Grammy.
Atlantic released their first greatest-hits album, but a conflict arose with the label over the group’s direction. Their “Bop Doo Wopp” album did not do well, so they decided to forgo commercial imperatives and return to their strength: vocalese. In this style, instrumental jazz standards are rewitten for voices in arrangements modeled after a big band horn section, and lyrics are added.
Back in their comfort zone, the group began to record albums with distinctive themes. On “Brasil,” they collaborated with Brazilian songwriters in an exploration of world music textures integrated with jazz. “Swing,” released in 1997, emphasized the music of the ’30s and ’40s swing era, and in 2000 “Spirit of St. Louis” paid tribute to Louis Armstrong.
Throughout its three-decade history, Manhattan Transfer has been involved with projects as varied as its repetoire, including a brief experimental TV series of their own. They have collaborated with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, B.B. King and Phil Collins. In 1994, they also lent their voices to a rendition of the 1945 children’s classic “Tubby the Tuba,” personifying the cast of instrument characters by vocally interpreting the sounds of the instruments.
They have been cutting records for over 30 years and are showing no signs of slowing down. This Sunday at 7 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m. they will be performing at Seoul Olympic Park as a stop on their tour to promote their latest album, “Couldn’t Be Hotter.” Tickets range from 45,000 won ($38) to 100,000 won. Call 1588-7890 for more information or visit

by Kirsten Jerch
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