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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