The Manhattan Transfer looks back at 45 years of four-part magic

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The Manhattan Transfer

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The Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser in a YouTube video for his Kickstarter campaign to raise money for “I Made Sauce!” -Photo: YouTube

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Under the Streetlamp

By all accounts, Tim Hauser is a lucky man, and luck has helped propel The Manhattan Transfer, the group he founded in 1969, on an impressive career trajectory as the country’s best-known jazz vocal group.

But Hauser, now 72, maintains that the success of TMT was more than just luck. The Troy, New York, native first conceived the idea as a student at Villanova University: Find the right talent to create a new spin on the four-part vocal harmonies that were a small but significant part of the Big Band sound of the 1930s and ’40s.

“The Big Band arrangers would write for the entire orchestra and leave a 32-bar section for the vocalists to fill,” says Hauser, who appears with TMT on June 19 at the Northern Lights Theater in Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Bingo Casino. 

The Big Bands styled their four-part harmonies like an arranger would style the saxophone section — in a way that matched the tone and timbre of the composition. That was an approach that appealed to Hauser, who grew up listening to many of the great jazz artists. He also believed it made sense from a marketing perspective.

“At the time no one was doing vocalese music, so I thought, ‘We could do that,’ and no one was doing four-part harmony, and I thought, ‘We could do that,’” Hauser says. 

Hauser took the name of the group from Manhattan Transfer, John Dos Passos’ 1925 novel about the development of New York City from the Gilded Age to the Jazz Age. The book had been assigned reading in one of Hauser’s Villanova literature classes.

“If you read the book, you could make a case that it tells the story of how we all got together, but my reason was much more prosaic,” Hauser says. “The cover of the paperback had the drawing of a subway train screaming into a station, and that to me summed up New York City.”

TMT’s original iteration lasted two years and produced one album — Jukin’.

Hauser, who had left a Madison Avenue marketing career to pursue music, was driving a cab in New York in 1972 when he picked up Laurel Massé, an aspiring singer familiar with the album. A few weeks later, he met Janis Siegel at a party and Massé’s boyfriend introduced Hauser and Siegel to Alan Paul, who was appearing in Grease. A new iteration of TMT began to gel.

In 1978, Massé was seriously injured in an auto accident and couldn’t perform. She was replaced by Cheryl Bentyne who, along with Hauser, Siegel and Paul, formed the final version of the band.

TMT’s style has evolved and become more sophisticated over the years, something Hauser credits to each of the singers.

“Cheryl is the daughter of a swing musician, and she gravitates that way,” Hauser says. “Alan and I both like doo-wop, and Janis is a real East Coast jazzhead. The older we get the more difficult it sometimes becomes managing the influences, but once we agree on an approach it really works.”

One of the numbers that worked exceptionally well was TMT’s vocal version of Joe Zawinul’s “Birdland.” Featuring lyrics by Jon Hendricks, TMT matched the original rhythmic and highly complex instrumental composition note for note, an impressive performance that earned TMT its first Grammy Award.

“This piece is a testament to producer Jay Graydon, who was very fastidious, almost anal-retentive in matching the original work,” says Hauser. “He wanted perfect doubling and he was a pain in the ass in the studio but it worked.”

Siegel’s vocals soared through Wayne Shorter’s original saxophone measures, while Hauser covered legendary bassist Jaco Pastorious’ part note for note. Everyone jumped in on Zawinul’s keyboard work, Hauser adds.

The group has enjoyed acclaim for other cover pieces, including Freddie Green’s “Corner Pocket,” originally written for the Count Basie Orchestra and covered by TMT as “Until I Met You.” Entire albums have also been devoted to single artists, including 2000’s The Spirit of St. Louis, an homage to Louis Armstrong that was suggested by Bentyne.

Another homage album, 2009’s The Chick Corea Songbook, covers the work of the contemporary jazz pianist. It was a project brought to the group by producer Yusuf Gandhi. It was a little more difficult for Hauser to wrap his head around.

“This was difficult because Chick’s music is very complex and the melodic structure is unconventional, “ Hauser says. “It’s very cerebral. It took me a long time to ‘get’ a lot of his music, which comes from a different place than where I come from.”

But the album marked a step forward for TMT, which continues to evolve. Still, steps toward the next album haven’t always proved easy to take, Hauser says.

“Cheryl would like to record Vocalese 2,” says Hauser, referring to a sequel to the successful 1985 TMT album, “and that would be a great idea. I’d like to do an album that captures the Philadelphia soul sound like that of The Spinners and The Delfonics, but my partners aren’t too keen on that. Janis and Alan say they just want to record another TMT album, but I don’t know what that is.”

Once TMT’s members do reach a consensus on what to do next, it will work — and it will work really well.

‘I made sauce!’

Growing up in heavily Italian-American New Jersey neighborhoods, Tim Hauser was often invited for dinner by his friends’ mothers.

“They would say to me, ‘Timmy, why don’t you stay for dinner. I made sauce,’” says Hauser, referring to the pasta sauce that would be the evening’s main feature. Hauser has drawn on those experiences to launch “I Made Sauce!,” his own line of pasta sauces, produced and marketed by him and his wife Barb. The couple raised $35,000 on a Kickstarter campaign, which closed June 4, and is off and running with the new product line.

The high-end sauces, based on the foods he tasted when he toured Italy, are designed to make people happy in the same way that TMT’s music does, says Hauser. After years of working in the music business, he’s happy he can start a new enterprise.

“I want to show people that you can climb another mountain at 72,” says Hauser, who last year underwent back surgery as a result of having cancer. “You get up and you get moving, dude!”

Northern lights hosts Under the Streetlamp

Fans of four-part harmony get a treat on June 14, when Northern Lights Theater presents Under the Streetlamp, a male vocal quartet made up of past cast members from the wildly popular Broadway musical Jersey Boys. Comprised of singers Michael Cunio, Michael Ingersoll, Christopher Kale Jones and Shonn Wiley, Under the Streetlamp performs hits from the American Radio Songbook, from doo-wop and Motown to old time rock ‘n’ roll. Unique harmonies and some slick dance moves round out a performance that’s the perfect warm-up act for The Manhattan Transfer. Information and tickets: www.paysbig.com.