Manhattan Transfer’s Tim Hauser: 10 Essential Performances

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How does one receive a quality jazz education? For some, it may have come from a music teacher. In my case, some of my earliest teachers were the Manhattan Transfer, the vocal quartet who blended R&B, pop, and jazz into a unique mixture. Thanks to songs like “The Night That Monk Returned to Heaven,” I learned about Thelonius Monk. Other tracks led me to “discover” such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and Charlie Parker. I owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel, and Alan Paul for their enjoyable yet invaluable lessons.

When the group announced that founder Hauser had passed away on October 16, 2014, I felt I had lost a mentor. While we never met, he had played a significant part in my early love of music. Interestingly, his roots lay in doo-wop as much as jazz. Hailing from the Jersey Shore, Hauser formed his first doo-wop group, the Criterions, when he was just 15. After graduating college and serving in the military, he formed the first version of Manhattan Transfer in 1969.

Their first album Jukin’ received little notice, and the group soon dissolved. However, after meeting vocalists Laurel Massé and Siegel, he decided to reform the act. Once mutual friend Paul joined, they relaunched Manhattan Transfer in 1972. A car accident led to Massé’s departure; Bentyne replaced her in 1979, and the lineup remained intact throughout the rest of their careers. While they had some minor hits with Massé (including the gospel tune “Operator”), it was their 1979 vocalese cover of the Weather Report’s “Birdland” that brought them international acclaim.

Hauser served as the group’s director and was the heart and soul of the Manhattan Transfer. He brought his doo-wop background to their music, and introduced jazz to mass audiences. In addition, Hauser and the Manhattan Transfer paved the way for subsequent vocal groups such as New York Voices, the Real Group, and the Nylons.

The Manhattan Transfer served as a true team, with each member providing vital contributions to their music. However, Hauser’s steady vocals and occasional comedic persona functioned as the group’s backbone, and the following list includes 10 significant Hauser performances …

“ROUTE 66,” (MANHATTAN TRANSFER, 1975): Written by Bobby Troup, “Route 66” was initially made famous by Nat King Cole. When the Manhattan Transfer released their cover in 1975, it subsequently became a concert standard for the group. Hauser’s straightforward vocal provides the framework for the track, a role he would perfect throughout the quartet’s tenure. While Hauser’s singing may not be flashy, his subtle technique became his trademark.

“JAVA JIVE,” (MANHATTAN TRANSFER, 1975): While Hauser served as the Manhattan Transfer’s backbone, he was also the group’s comedian. Anyone who wonders if he really loved his job should look no further than this early tune, a charming rendition of the Ink Spots original. Hauser’s humorous vocal both emphasizes the lyrical playfulness yet is firmly rooted in jazz.

“THAT CAT IS HIGH,” MANHATTAN TRANSFER, 1975): The innuendo-filled tune, originally made famous by the Ink Spots, may have been a curious choice for the quartet. While this new version is sped up and features even more sophisticated harmonies, it allows Hauser to display his playful side. His rapid yet precise delivery reveals the song’s jazz origins, but retains the “wink-wink” nature of the lyrics.

“FOUR BROTHERS,” (PASTICHE, 1977): Originally performed by the Woody Herman Orchestra, “Four Brothers” first received the Manhattan Transfer treatment on this 1977 album. They would revisit the song frequently in their concerts, a particularly lively version appearing on their 1987 album The Manhattan Transfer Live. The tongue-twisting lyrics, composed by vocalese legend Jon Hendricks, would challenge any regular singer. The quartet handle the words with aplomb, with each member taking a turn in the spotlight. Hauser renders a typically spirited yet skillful solo, a note-for-note recreation of original horn parts.

“BIRDLAND,” (EXTENSIONS, 1979): The Manhattan Transfer’s major breakthrough, “Birdland” earned them two Grammys. Indeed, their vocalese version of the Weather Report original still dazzles with its note-perfect replicas of the solos. Hauser gets a tasty solo spotlight, the music almost dropping out as he channels his occasional onstage persona “El Dorado Caddy” on lines such as “There will never be nothin’ such as that — no more, skoo be wah, no more!”

JEANNINE (BOP DOO-WOPP, 1985): The Manhattan Transfer’s swinging take on Duke Pearson’s 1961 instrumental both pays tribute yet puts a new spin on a classic. While not precisely vocalese, as their words do not exactly mimic original solos, they still honor Pearson’s composition with tempo and melody. This live rendition, performed at a mid-1980s Tokyo concert, features the quartet at their best. The section where each member scats solo in succession, eventually resembling a full band, is simply sublime. Listen for Hauser’s voice functioning as percussion.

“THAT’S KILLER JOE” (VOCALESE, 1985): Considered one of the group’s finest albums, Vocalese redefined the art form. Accompanied by Hendricks and his lyrics, the Manhattan Transfer demonstrated their sophistication and technique. Resurrecting “El Dorado Caddy,” Hauser assumes the title character who likens women to beads on a necklace. He sounds both menacing and charming, his raspy voice perfectly mimicking Benny Golson’s instrumental original.

“SPRING JOY SPRING,” (VOCALESE, 1985): The Clifford Brown original is transformed through Hendricks’ words and the Manhattan Transfer’s harmonies. A side-by-side comparison with the original reveals the difficult art of vocalese. Hauser’s vocals exactly replicate original solos, with Hendricks’ tongue-tripping lyrics posing an even bigger challenge for any jazz singer. Yet Hauser, along with other featured vocalist Siegel, makes it look easy.

“SOUL FOOD TO GO,” (BRASIL, 1987): “Do you believe in jazz?” the group asks in this exotic track. Brazilian rhythms and jazz have enjoyed a longtime close relationship, and the Manhattan Transfer’s 1987 album further explores the connection. The lead single from Brasil, “Soul Food to Go” features music by legend Djavan and words by the Knack’s Doug Fieger. Hauser’s lead vocal sounds seductive and playful, crooning lines such as “Whip up some steamin’ jazz; the pot is on the stove — it’s cookin’” with conviction.

“CONFIDE IN ME,” (THE OFFBEAT OF AVENUES, 1991): In the early 1990s, the Manhattan Transfer tried their hand at contemporary pop. The results were decidedly mixed, earning lukewarm critical and commercial reception. While their jazzy harmonies failed to mesh with dance beats and pseudo-rap, they managed to record this hidden gem. A Donald Fagen-penned track, “Confide in Me” features Fagen’s patented wordplay, nicely accented by Hauser’s breezy delivery. Siegel, Paul, and Bentyne provide doo-wop harmonies, the horns and chord changes bearing traces of Steely Dan. Hauser clearly understood Fagen’s whimsy, making “Confide in Me” an enjoyable listen.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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