Re: New bio for SOSL
- Hi all --
Great link for the CD Now interview! Borders.com also has an interview with
Janis and Cheryl on their site, so be sure to check that out, too.
Thought you might enjoy reading the Bio of the group that Atlantic is putting
into the press kits.
THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER
The Manhattan Transfer - Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Alan Paul, and Janis
Siegel - have racked up many remarkable achievements in their 27-year career.
The premiere vocal ensemble in contemporary music, the group has constantly
evolved, exploring musical styles from swing to doo-wop to traditional
Brazilian song, and scoring Top 40 pop hits including "The Boy From New York
City" and "Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone." With its acclaimed 1985 album
"VOCALESE," the foursome revitalized an entire genre of jazz.
But until now, there's one thing the ten-time Grammy winners have never done:
Dedicated an entire album to the musical legacy of a single individual.
"THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS," the Manhattan Transfer's eleventh studio release
for Atlantic, marks an important step in the quartet's history, as they delve
into the catalog of the trumpet player and singer widely regarded as the most
influential artist in the history of jazz: Louis Armstrong.
"What was interesting was that here was an individual whose music we never
explored at all in our career," says founding member Hauser of the project,
which timed out nicely with the year-long centennial celebration of Satchmo's
birth. It's a wonder it took them so long. After all, as Bentyne observes,
"Everything we've always done, everything all jazz musicians, rock musicians,
have done, all funnels down to Louis Armstrong."
"We realized just what an all-encompassing performer he was, in so many
areas," admits Siegel. "He revolutionized jazz singing." A pop artist who
crossed all genres, Armstrong was a relaxed yet emotional musician who never
let his impeccable chops upstage feeling. "We found that the material he did
was extremely rich," she adds. That repertoire proved a wellspring of
inspiration, notes Bentyne, "because it gave us all many different directions
in which to go, more so than any music we've ever done."
Regardless, the challenge facing the group was formidable and twofold: a)
Which selections from Armstrong's canon to tackle; and b) How to interpret
them in a distinctive fashion. "We didn't want to just make an album of
clichés," says Paul. "We also didn't want to make a straight-ahead jazz
The first task was digging into Armstrong's extensive catalog as a spotlight
artist, spanning from his mid-1920's recordings with the small Hot Fives and
Hot Sevens ensembles, up to his death in 1971. "We wanted to include a
couple songs that are really associated with Armstrong," says Siegel, "ones
someone on the street would name if you went up to them and said, 'Name two
Louie Armstrong tunes!'" From that column, the quartet chose "A Kiss To
Build A Dream On" and "When You Wish Upon A Star."
But finding new ways to approach those best-loved selections wasn't simple.
"It's almost easier doing songs that are more obscure," admits Paul.
"Steering away from the saccharine side of songs like 'When You Wish Upon A
Star,' which is so well know, was really challenging. Because the tendency
is to go melodically and arrangement-wise, where you think it should go,
where people are used to hearing the song go. And we didn't want to do
Enter producer Craig Street, whose credits include acclaimed albums for k.d.
lang, Cassandra Wilson, and Me'Shell NdegeOcello. Street compelled the
quartet to throw its traditional approaches to creating an album out the
window, and open themselves up to unlocking new modes of performance. "We
usually like to be in control, and write the vocal charts out first and then
put it in front of the musicians or the arranger," says Bentyne. "But this
was all done the other way around, where we had to sit back and trust that we
would just come up with something vocally that matched the track. We've
never done that before, and it was exciting."
The producer pulled the rug out from under the foursome. "We've been
together for 27 years," notes Hauser, admitting that after that long "you
kind of flow with the patterns. And all of a sudden, Boom! Here we are in
this whole other world. That was very healthy for us."
Street assembled a core of top-notch sidemen: Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums,
Teddy Borowiecki on keyboards, Greg Leisz on guitars, and Holly Cole Trio vet
David Piltch on bass. For select cuts, he augmented the line-up with some
surprisingly experimental players, including fusion trumpet master Jon
Hassell (on "When You Wish Upon A Star") and Beck alum Smokey Hormel (guitar
on "The Blues Are Brewin'"). Guitar and loops supplied by David Torn waft
through the hazy atmosphere of "A Kiss To Build A Dream On," while Los Lobos'
Steve Berlin blows baritone sax on "Old Man Mose" and "Hotter Than That."
Jimmy Haskell, Roger Treece, and David Campbell split duties of orchestration
"Working with these guys was incredible, because they were very open, very
flexible," says Paul of the band. "We would go in, and just feel each other
out a little bit, talk about the ideas. And then we would wait… and wait…
and wait. And eventually one guy would go start playing, and then the next
guy, and they'd start this kind of jam. All of a sudden, you'd feel it, this
whole wave." The four singers would take their cues from that spontaneous
energy, "and just start fooling around, and out of that came this record."
Sonically, "THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS" feels completely distinct from any other
Manhattan Transfer album, born from a weird confluence of contemporary,
classic, and unexpected sounds. Accordion, mandolin, pump organ, and pedal
steel are all part of the palette, along with more conventional woodwinds,
strings, and vibraphone. "In the past, we've used more traditional jazz
instrumentation," admits Siegel. "On this album, we used a lot more
authentic, older instruments."
In turn, the four distinctive singers explored new facets of their individual
vocal characters. "On this album, the group takes a lot more solo and duo
turns," notes Siegel. "That was just a natural outgrowth of realizing that
every song doesn't have to feature four-part harmony all the way through…
that it's a lot more emotional, and interesting, for people to hear a solo
As an experiment, Street asked each of the members to select a few songs they
were compelled to sing. "He wanted each one of us to have at least one tune
that we were just utterly passionate about because he felt it would come out
on the recording," explains Siegel.
Hauser elected for "Blue Again," one of his all-time Armstrong favorites.
But Street's modus operandi kept the singer from getting hung-up on
preconceived notions of how it should sound. "I walked up to the mic, and
had no idea where they were going to go with it," he recalls. "Here comes
the downbeat, and these cats are playing a country blues. So I just started
singing. When it was done, Craig said, 'That's the take.' And I go, 'What
do you mean, that's the take? This is the scratch vocal." But he said,
"That's it - you're out of here."
Bentyne, whose father was a Dixieland musician himself, opted for "Sugar
(That Sugar Baby O' Mine)," albeit at a much lazier pace than Satchmo's
reading. "I wanted to create a little smokiness, with more of a Julie
London/Peggy Lee vibe, because that's the kind of character I am in this
group," she reveals. "The lyrics are so sexy and full of double entendre
that I thought, 'This'll be perfect, just slow the tempo down and create the
mood from there.'"
Siegel sunk her teeth into "The Blues Are Brewin'," because "I loved the
melody of it. But I wanted to try to make it more of a blues, because when
Louis does it, it's very elegant and sophisticated, almost like you'd sing it
in a supper club… and I wanted to take it into the alleys. When we cut it, I
said to the musicians - especially the drummer, Abe Laborial Jr. - "Let's
pretend that we're drunk, in an alley, and you're playing garbage can lids."
"THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS" also features a pair of exercises in vocalese, with
Paul setting lyrics to two Armstrong instrumentals. "It was obvious that we
would wind up doing some vocalese pieces because Armstrong was such a great
instrumentalist, as well as being a singer," he says. For "Stompin' At
Mahogany Hall" (an adaptation of "Mahogany Hall Stomp"), Paul drew
inspiration from tales of Armstrong's misadventures as an errand boy to
hookers and hoodlums in New Orleans' infamous Storyville district. "Hotter
Than That" couples images that'll make the mercury rise with the swinging
bravura of another Armstrong disciple, Louis Prima. On both numbers, Siegel
translates Armstrong's instrumental flair and distinctive timbre to the human
voice with verve to spare.
"The thing that we wanted to express on this album was the pure joy that
Louis Armstrong expressed in his music," Siegel summarizes. "We wanted to
capture his spirit more than any literal interpretation of his music… to have
him live through us for a moment, and do what we do, but have that spirit
infused in the music."
No small undertaking, but "THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS" succeeds in achieving its
ambitious goals. Listening back, it sounds like music the Manhattan
Transfer, quite simply, needed to record. "We were ready to make an album of
this magnitude," concludes Bentyne. "At this point in our life, it's time to
do the world's greatest music, by the world's greatest musicians, the best
that we can. And if we can't accomplish that, then it's time to retire.
We've taken on a huge handful here, and I hope people feel what we've done -
because it certainly has changed our lives."