Posted by: jgurner | September 21, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen… The Manhattan Transfer!

For weeks, I had been anxiously awaiting the performance by one of my long-time favorite groups The Manhattan Transfer. I’d seen them once before, 13 years ago at the same venue, and was looking forward to another unforgettable concert with them on stage belting out favorite highlights of their long career together.

But that’s not exactly what happened.

Instead, I and a few hundred of TMT’s closest friends spent a cozy, rain-soaked evening gathered around a piano (figuratively, not literally) as the quartet took a stroll down memory lane, reflecting on their 41 years together, telling stories, singing songs and showing off a few items they’ve collected over their many decades together. The show was one of TMT’s “Living Room” shows. Smaller and more intimate. No band, just Tim, Janis, Alan and Cheryl along with long-time TMT musical director and pianist Yaron Gershovsky.

As it turns out, the performance at the Performing Arts center in Bartlett, TN, was a return to the stage for TMT’s founder Tim Hauser, who has been recovering from back surgery. He, and the others, were in fine form, not only vocally, but also in telling a few of the tales from their long, storied career. At one point, Hauser harkened back to his days as a cab drive in New York City and a chance meeting with Freddie Green, guitarist for the Count Basie Orchestra that was the genesis for the TMT’s recording of Green’s tune “Corner Pocket.”

The night was filled with similar anecdotes about different tunes, their early years and various phases the group went through musically. One one side of the stage, they had a clothes rack containing some of the costumes they’ve worn over the years and every once in a while they’d drag a piece out and tell a story. Alan Paul even donned his leather jacket when they did a couple of do-wop numbers. They had some of the albums they put out in their early years and even had their first Gold-selling record. At another point, while Janis Siegel and Cheryl Bentyne did some vocal calisthenics on the tune “Why Not (Manhattan Carnival), Tim Hauser slipped off the side of the stage and came out a few minutes later as  “Eldorado Caddy,” replete with coat and hat, to perform “Killer Joe.”

This wasn’t a “greatest hits” performance, but more of a retrospective that included tunes dusted off from early in their pre-record contract career, but a number of signature tunes like “Birdland,”  “Tuxedo Junction” and “Route 66” were included along with cuts that might not be as familiar, except to diehard fans, like “Clouds” and “Chanson D’Amour.” It was a very eclectic mix and the feel of the whole show almost stream of conscious with the group just reaching into a bag of memories and tunes and pulling them our at random. At one point early in the show Bentyne talked about their harmonies and how they put together their arrangements and, as a demonstration, they deconstructed a tune, with each of them adding their layer one at a time.

And as amazing as Time, Janis, Paul and Cheryl were, you have to really give major props to Gershovsky. He didn’t say a word the entire evening, but spoke volumes through his fingers on the keys of the piano. He shone on every tune, but really let it rip when about halfway through the show, the others left the stage and he went on a tear up and down the ivories on a medley that eventually morphed into the opening strains of “Birdland.” A setting like this really let this man who has been a behind the scenes player for so much of TMT’s career shine.

One of the things that made this performance so special was it really did seem like it was a group of long-time friends and colleagues who got together just to shoot the breeze and talk about their time together. They not only laughed and joked with the audience, but with each other, often clowning around on stage not for the our entertainment, but for theirs. It was a more personal and less “polished” (in a good way) show than I expected. Not that their vocals were anything other than amazing, but at one point when they were performing one of the tunes from their early days, Janis kept on going after the rest had stopped, just for a couple of beats, and all of them on stage just burst out into good-natured laughter. It’s weird, but it’s almost reassuring to see an artist you’ve admired for lo long make a little slip-up like that. It does more than anything to make them more “real.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a performance as much as I enjoyed this one. When we were leaving, I said I was a little disappointed because I thought the show couldn’t have lasted more than 20-30 minutes, while in reality, almost an hour and forty-five minutes had gone by since they first came out onto the stage. And, sure, if they had done a straight-forward show, they could have packed in another half a dozen or so tunes in, maybe some of my favorites that didn’t get performed, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

I hope to get to see them perform again at some point, but if I don’t it’s fine. It can’t get much better than it was last night.

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