Three weeks after overseeing production of the instrumental tracks with the likes of John Pizzarelli, Will Lee, Lew Soloff and Gil Goldstein for their new Telarc album Vibrate in late January at Sear Sound in New York, The Manhattan Transfer is out in rain soaked Sun Valley, California, laying down vocals and additional overdubs at the home studio (TGV Studios) of engineer (and former Sting guitarist) Thomas Baraka Di Candia.
Bad traffic up to horse property country caused by the heavy downpour sets the day’s session back a half hour or so, but within minutes of drying off, the no-nonsense vocal quartet of Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne, Tim Hauser and Alan Paul is ready to do the thing that has endeared them to jazz and pop audiences (and won them 12 Grammy Awards) for more three decades—harmonize. “It’s easy to get into it quickly if we’ve lived with the song a while and understand the emotion of it,” says Bentyne later. “It’s shaped relative to that emotion. It’s like snapping into a zone.”
Alternately, rain touches gently and heavily on the roof of the studio building, but “Baraka” assures them it won’t affect the recording. They start with a series of slight tweaks to the chorus of Rufus Wainright’s “Greek Song.” It quickly becomes clear that Janis Siegel, dressed in ski cap, a yellow and red jersey and black rimmed glasses, is the group’s perfection police when it comes to perfect vocal harmony matching to the musical track. Bentyne says she traditionally gets frustrated when the voices don’t match correctly after eight or nine run throughs, but as the resident “pitch officer,” she tries to be patient. They spend some ten minutes going over a few lines that start sounding like a travelogue mantra after a while:
“All the pearls of China/Fade astride a Volta/Don't sew your beelines to anybody's hide…One way is Rome and the other way is Mecca…On either side, on either side of our motor bike.”
That tune and another clever Wainright song, the title track whose key line goes, “My phone’s on vibrate for you,” form the centerpiece of the very eclectic project, their first studio recording on Telarc after debuting on the label with last year’s live date Couldn’t Be Hotter. In tune with the CD title, Vibrate is also the Transfer’s first to be recorded in 5.1 Surround Sound, which requires each member to have an individual mic this time, rather than gather their harmonies around a single, larger mic.
Paul explains their basic song selection process pretty simply: “We all get together with wish lists of songs we want to do, then we discuss them. It’s all about good material.” This time out, that includes “Tutu,” the Marcus Miller tune that Miles made famous (with lyrics by Jon Hendricks), Brenda Russell’s “Walkin’ In New York,” John Yano’s “The Twelfth,” the early Beach Boys tune “Free Flows” and Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.”
Once they rehearse “Greek Song,” it’s lunchtime. Over Subway and egg salad (Bentyne) and sipping Starbucks (Siegel), they talk about the song they’re going to do overdubs on later, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s tune “Modhina.” They first heard it on his album Terra Brasilis, and whose original Portuguese lyrics by Vincicius De Moraes were translated into English by Paul close to 15 years ago.
“I felt inspired to take a stab at the lyrics and wanted to contain the phonetic shaping of De Moraes' original lyric but also convey an emotional perspective about finding joy and love,” says Paul. “Core of Sound is a reflection of the vibratory aspect of God, the Aum sound that permeates everything that exists and within us. We called Jobim in Brazil and sang him the lyrics, and he thought they were beautiful. But the song wasn’t appropriate for our Brasil album. Once we had compiled the set list for Vibrate, we remembered this one almost as an afterthought and figured better late than never.”
A bit later, sitting informally on chairs in front of “Baraka”’s monstrous console, the quartet begins vocalizing along with the haunting arrangement of “Modhina,” which features Pizzarelli on guitar. Bentyne’s getting in goosebump mode (always a good sign, she says) and Paul chimes in with an occasional, “Too Loud,” while shaking his head. He mentions another song once which required him to do an individual overdub because “I was singing ‘ma’ while they were singing ‘ba.’”
Later, Hauser goes into the adjacent iso booth (with one bright bulb illuminating the pitch black walls) to work on a specific few bar section of “Modhina.” Siegel in the main room focuses attentively and tries to match his timbre to notes on the keyboard. “Lay on that G flat, it’s a sad note,” she says over and over like a mantra. “Yeah, baby,” she says finally, “you got it!” Hauser looks up above and says, “I hope the sound of the rain doesn’t interfere.” Paul thinks it’s too claustrophobic.
After telling me how she warmed up for this session by exercising her vocal cords en route to Sun Valley, Bentyne comments, “We’re always working on different areas with our voice, sometimes the chest, sometimes falsetto or pronunciation. Tongue placement is important. It’s about getting a balance and not being sterile. I’m not the technical one. I don’t always want everything to sound perfect. It gets pretty microscopic sometimes.”
Bentyne, wearing an oversized black sweater and jeans, also comments on the value of the proper attire: “Clothes make a difference, and should be worn based on the attitude of the song. These songs today have a casual feeling, so we’re dressed pretty down. Other times, Janice and I put on lipstick, do our hair and wear dresses. Alan wore suspenders when we did our swing album.”
While Siegel and Paul go over charts, Hauser chats about his marinara sauce business (“I Got Sauce”) and then, turning the conversation to business, laments, “The hardest adjustment we’ve had to make in our careers is being out of the era of huge recording budgets. We don’t have the same luxury of time that we used to have, that’s why everything seems so rushed. Companies were out of control years ago, spending too much money, so I understand. But I’d be happier with more days to get these vocals right. Where we could do a tune a day in the past, now we have to do one and a half. It’s stressful, but on the good side, we are forced to hone on important things quicker.”
Paul surveys the equipment in the studio’s main room and talks about the value of Pro Tools, focusing on his observation that “the 192 high definition sampling rate helps create a sound much closer to analog. He mentions that the four are friends outside the live and studio settings (and that some of their children are close, too) and the fact that he’s naturally a baritone but sings tenor. Siegel talks about all the major “shleppage” the Manhattan Transfer will experience in support of Vibrate and talks about trips to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.
Soon they’re ready to squeeze into the iso booth with the black walls, gather around the single mic hanging from the ceiling and commit “Greek Song” to digital “tape.” They appear cramped but relaxed, and listen to the rain. To quote one of their classic tunes, the “Trickle Trickle,” splash splash of the rain stops just as Baraka gets rolling. To the ear untrained in harmonic precision, the first run-through sounds great, but it’s only mid-afternoon. The harmony police will have plenty of time to listen before they work on the next song tomorrow.
FESTIVALS: The West Coast jazz festival season started strongly the last weekend in April with City of Lights in Las Vegas. Held for the second year at Desert Breeze Park, just a few miles off the Strip, the 11th annual event featured energetic performances by Brian Culbertson with Michael Lington (the saxman spotlighted his new single “Show Me” from his Rendezvous Music debut Stay With Me), BWB (an effective closer, though no match for last year’s Guitars & Saxes finale) and Bobby Lyle. The most memorable moments were the half hour set by Chicago guitarist Nick Colionne (who plays like a madman and also sang a soulful “Rainy Night in Georgia”) and the intense father-daughter horn fiesta of Mindi Abair and her dad (and chief musical inspiration) Lance.
Another great West Coast smooth jazz tradition is the annual KIFM Anniversary Party (held on the Saturday before Memorial Day) in the Gaslamp Quarter of Downtown San Diego. The usual suspects — Dave Koz, Peter White — were joined in the lineup by the more legendary Fourplay (even two blocks away, Larry Carlton crackles) and David Sanborn. Many opted to forgo Sanborn to hear Dutch world groove sax master Praful weave his seductive body magic in the more intimate confines of the outdoor courtyard of the Horton Grand Hotel.
What I’m Listening To:
1) Pieces of a Dream, No Assembly Required (Heads Up) – Still grooving after nearly 30 years, the ensemble, driven by founding members Curtis Harmon (drums) and melodic master James Lloyd (keyboardist) serve it up funkier than usual with a variety of vibrant saxmen
2) Wilson Phillips, California (Columbia)
3) Sergio Lara, Con La Lluvia (Fusion Acustica)
4) Torcuato Mariano, Diary (215 Records)
5) Avril Lavigne, Under My Skin (Arista)