Transfer keeps rollin’ for 25 years
Manhattan Transfer is a ticket to ride, although when Tim Hauser formed the hip vocal foursome 25 years ago, little did he know it was on the right track to becoming the nation’s most popular jazz vocal group.
In fact, he wasn’t even sure the Transfer would make it out of the roundhouse.
“Did I think we’d be around this long? At the time, I wasn’t even sure we’d be around tomorrow,” said Hauser from his San Fernando Valley home. “And I thought that even if we did make it, our universe would never be much beyond Canada.
“But after our first album (“The Manhattan Transfer”), we did shows in Berlin, London and Stockholm, and then practically lived in Europe for the next three years.”
They’re still solid favorites overseas. Not long ago they performed to standing-room-only audiences on an extended tour of Japanese nightclubs.
So for the most part it’s been Hitsville for the singing foursome almost from the get-go. The stats read something like this: 25 albums, 10 Grammys, repeat winners in jazz mag polls and frequent appearances on television variety shows.
However, while Hauser isn’t brooding over the failure two years ago of their last CD, “The Spirit of St. Louis” (a tribute to Louis Armstrong), to do as well as their immensely popular “Swing,” issued four years earlier, he isn’t happy about it, either.
“I can’t explain why it didn’t sell as well as we had hoped,” said Hauser, who turns 56 next month. “Maybe it was the timing. I just don’t know. But I gave up second guessing myself long ago.”
The Transfer’s three-record deal with Atlantic ended with the Armstrong salute. Hauser is now working independently on recording and television projects to commemorate the group’s 25th birthday this year. He envisions a double-dipper CD that will include re-recordings of many of the group’s biggest hits on one disc and entirely new material on the second. The TV special also would highlight the Transfer’s 25 years in show biz.
Hauser credits the longevity to staying focused.
“We knew right from the start what we wanted,” said Hauser of the blend unique to him and his soulmates (crooner Alan Paul, jazz-oriented Janis Siegel and free-spirited Laurel Massey). “And we’ve never gotten away from it, not even when Cheryl Bentyne joined us after Laurel went out on her own in ’78.
“To show you how constant the sound is, Laurel took Janis’ place for a couple of numbers at a New York jazz festival recently, and when she was through, Cheryl couldn’t believe it. ‘God, the sound was just the same.'”
Though the Transfer blend and phrasing is often compared to the Hi-Los of an earlier era and former Hi-Lo Gene Puerling does some arranging for the Transfer, Hauser looks on Jon Hendricks as the group’s godfather. The originator of vocalese wrote the material for their best-selling “Vocalese” album in ’85. And he still contributes to their book on a regular basis.
Vocalese may sound complicated, but it isn’t, according to Hauser. “All it amounts to is putting lyrics to great instrumentals which we couldn’t perform otherwise. Basically, we are the saxophone, trumpet and trombone sections. We sing the orchestras and the solos. This is our way of making a contemporary jazz album that’s based on roots, on tradition. We just fuse a lot of things, and if it feels good to us and makes audiences feel good, then we know it works.”
Which is just about how Hauser picked the name for his group. He figured it was good enough for a John Dos Passos novel of the ’20s and for a subway station in New Jersey where you get a transfer to Manhattan, it was good enough for his group. In short, it worked..
While Hauser called most of the shots for the Transfer initially, most decisions are now reached collectively. “Each of us has an opinion about what we should be doing, though we don’t always agree. But we’ve learned to give and take and put aside our differences for the good of the group. That’s the way it has to be.”
Hauser admits to an affection for music out of the swing era – one of the group’s biggest sellers was a groovy version of “Tuxedo Junction” – and almost any album or stage appearance is sure to include an ample sample of music from the big band era.
But with Hauser having an offspring answering to the name of Basie, what else would you expect?
Cam Miller is a free-lance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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