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The Manhattan Transfer with Jane Monheit

The Manhattan Transfer came to Columbus on May 22, and they went away as popular as ever with their followers in Ohio’s Capitol City. As Tim Hauser mentioned, seemingly without exaggeration, The Manhattan Transfer has played the Palace Theater more often than any other in the country and that doesn’t include the quartet’s appearances at the Ohio Theater and the Columbus Zoo. A glance at the audience suggested that these were fans who have been listening to The Manhattan Transfer for years, from the group’s first wave of popularity in the 1970’s through their recent Telarc recorded projects, and the majority of the audience appeared to be in their fifties.

The Manhattan Transfer covered material from its very first album, eponymously titled, to songs yet unreleased from its upcoming CD. Since Jimmy Buffett was performing simultaneously across town, Alan Paul announced that The Manhattan Transfer would show appreciation for its audience by singing one of its new arrangements for the first time in public.

The Manhattan Transfer took its audience into the future with music yet unheard on CD, but some of the songs from that future CD, unnamed so far as the audience knew, typically refer to the past. Even though the group delivered throughout the rest of the concert just what the audience wanted and expected-familiar music from previous projects-the surprise was in the delivery. It was obvious from the enthusiasm of the performers that Hauser, Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne and Alan Paul still love what they’re doing. Bentyne in particular appears to be on fire on stage, her eyes wide open with excitement, her arms swaying, an ever-present smile flashing. Even from the start of the show, she won over the audience with his kittenish falsetto solo on "Doodlin’." With tight vocal arrangements as forcefully sung as ever, the group continued to warm up the audience with "Sing Moten’s Swing." It wasn’t until the finger-snapped their way into "Route 66" that the show fell into its groove. After that, the audience was theirs.

Bookending familiar material with songs from that first album ("You Can Depend On Me," "Candy," "That Cat Is High") and its upcoming CD ("Vibrate," "Walkin’ In New York"), The Manhattan Transfer created its own special moments, developed over the years. There was Alan Paul going down on one knee to beg unctuously for the affection of "Gloria." And then, there was Janis Siegel literally trumpeting the melody of Ella Fitzgerald’s version of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" for crowd-pleasing effect. There was the understated delivery of Rufus Wainwright’s "Vibrate," allowing the words to seize the audience’s attention: "I tried to dance to Britney Spears./I guess I’m getting on in years." The Manhattan Transfer’s combination of retro reworking of songs from the past with a modern sensibility has helped the group sustain its popularity through a third of a century while other musical styles have come and gone and fallen out of fashion during the same span of time.

Prefacing The Manhattan Transfer’s appearance was the warm-up act, so to speak, of chanteuse Jane Monheit, backed by her quintet. I have to admit that I never understood the harsh criticism-well, the venom-that has been directed toward Monheit ever since she started to appear on the covers of jazz magazines. It appeared that the popular white female singers were being unfairly criticized before they sang their first notes because they are attractive, talented and commercially successful. The music, it seemed, was lost in the invidious sputtering about appearance ("ultrafeminine" is how one critic described Monheit) and in the automatic dismissal of the value of their singing.

Now I get it.

Monheit, indeed, is 80 percent visual and 20 percent auditory. I thought it was just me. But my wife leaned over in the middle of Monheit’s performance with her withering appraisal. It seems that Monheit’s suggestive on-stage persona brings out the worst in women.

Monheit slapped her hip, raised her arm far overhead and sideways like a semaphore, clasped her chest, pulled back her hair, kicked her leg, worked her shoulders in rhythm and swirled her pink skirt with serrated fringes suggesting petals or flames. It was interesting to see how many triangular shapes she could make with her left arm, isosceles, scalene and equilateral. She sang too.

See? Now I’m doing it too in spite of myself.

Monheit’s set started with "Taking A Chance On Love," pianist Michael Kanan’s arrangement creating the vamp that animated the lead-in and carried through the rest of the song. Her "Honeysuckle Rose" featured a bass/voice duo. The highlights of her performance were "Once I Walked In The Sun" from In The Sun, a song that Ivan Lins wrote for her, and "Over The Rainbow" ("The first song I ever sang"), sung theatrically in a tight spotlight.

The concert ended with The Manhattan Transfer’s encore consisting of "Java Jive" and "Tuxedo Junction." Now, in Columbus, concert-goers regularly leave early, in spite of paying good money to attend, to avoid traffic jams in parking garages. But no one left after "Birdland," The Manhattan Transfer’s last number. Instead, the audience rose in a standing ovation, The Manhattan Transfer’s connection with its Columbus audience strengthened. With confidence, a sense of fun, arrangements identified with their group, hints of future releases, boundless enthusiasm, scat singing, imitation of musical instruments, recollections of classic songs exemplifying an era, hipster-like lyrics and inimitable harmonies, The Manhattan Transfer reminded its audience that it’s one of the classic jazz vocal groups, even as it crosses over into pop and doo-wop, that will be admired far into the future.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Manhattan Transfer
  • Concert Date: 5/22/2004
  • Venue: Palace Theater
  • City State Country: Columbus, Ohio
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