City Paper is not for tourists
Never particularly enthusiastic or convincing in its embrace of contemporary music, the Manhattan Transfer returns to the swing era with this collection of ’30s and ’40s big-band replications, a counterpart to the group’s 1985 bebop tribute, Vocalese. On half of the tracks, lyricist Jon Hendricks recycles the strategy employed on the 1958 Lambert, Hendricks & Ross breakthrough LP, Sing a Song of Basie: setting words to the ensembles, sections, and solos of vintage recordingsBenny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp,” Benny Moten’s “Moten Swing”; Transfer’s Tim Hauser contributes additional lyrics to Basie’s “Topsy”and replacing the original instruments with voices. Apart from the tricky task of matching syllables and notes, this is not a terribly creative endeavor; the Transfer’s voices are taxed by the technical demands of imitating horns, and Hendricks’ tongue-twisting lyrics are largely unintelligible without the CD booklet. But the group’s commitment to this daunting project is laudable and pays off on a few cuts, notably Fletcher Henderson’s “Down South Camp Meetin’” and Charlie Barnet’s “Skyliner.” The remaining tracks (“Java Jive,” “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie,” et al.) fall more comfortably within the group’s customary retro-jive-camp repertoire. Asleep at the Wheel adds a country flavor to three tunes, and the ageless Stéphane Grappelli joins the Rosenberg Trio to provide welcome musical substance on Django Reinhardt’s “Clouds,” a shimmering Gene Puerling vocal arrangement blemished by Cheryl Bentyne’s pinched solo. A commercially risky and only intermittently successful effort, Swing merits some applause, if only for alerting younger listeners to the classic instrumental originals.
Joel E. Siegel