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Esplanade’s Mosaic Music Series: The Manhattan Transfer (Review)

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50 years on and still one of the absolute best vocal groups around.

The Manhattan Transfer are undoubtedly one of America’s greatest treasures. Comprising Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne, along with newest member Trist Curless, the multiple Grammy Award-winning pop/jazz vocal quartet returned to the Esplanade Theatre after eight years on Tuesday, performing tracks from their latest album, along with all their greatest hits.

It was evident that the Esplanade Theatre was packed with adoring fans of the group, with plenty of excitement and anticipation emanating from the seats as we waited for them to come onstage. Right from the beginning, as all four of them step onto stage, we’re hit by a wave of energy as they launch into ‘Swing Balboa’, with strong notes and vocals to show off their vocal chops. Leading into ‘Topsy’ and ‘Route 66’, we hear each voice, distinct yet harmonised, giving the audience exactly what they came for.

Segueing into their opening medley, we get a glimpse into their older albums, with ‘That Cat Is High’, ‘Java Jive’ and hit song ‘Operator’, each snippet performed with gusto and flowing seamlessly into the next. With their return to Singapore, there was no doubt they’d have to perform ‘On A Little Street in Singapore’, met with plenty of cheers and applause at this little shout out to our island city.

Giving their newest member a chance to be in the spotlight, Trist Curless took to the stage with ‘Duke of Dubruque’, allowing him a chance to formally introduce himself and his vocal range. As described by Janis, Trist really is a ‘true bass’, and fits right into The Manhattan Transfer family and sound, bringing his own unique energy to the group that keeps their sound relevant up to today.

Leading into ‘Choo Choo’ and ‘Corner Pocket’, we took a moment to appreciate the band accompanying the group – Bruce Hamada on bass, Ross Pederson on drums, and music director Yaron Gershovsky on piano. Considering the amount of work and songs they perform, and just comprising three members, the quality of the sound they produce is honestly incredible.

With their classic ‘Joyspring’, The Manhattan Transfer’s tribute to jazz legend Jon Hendricks, it was almost as if the group brought Hendricks’ very spirit into the Esplanade. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine he was there, and certainly, this was one of the songs to raise one of the loudest cheers throughout the night.

Leading into ‘Airmail Special’, one feels with absolute certainty that The Manhattan Transfer’s repertoire of songs chosen really feels like a masterclass of what music is and should be. Janis Siegel, in particular, remains a firm favourite of ours, displaying seemingly effortless control over her voice with a wide range of notes, and all four of them truly emoting with their voices in harmony. In particular with ‘Sometimes I Do’, the quartet pays tribute to late founding member Tim Hauser, openly sharing about the impact he’s had on their career and artistry.

Leading into tracks from their album ‘Brasil’, The Manhattan Transfer upped the energy once again, with particular attention to the chemistry between Janis and Trist, giving these jaunty tunes a youthful vigor that makes the quartet feel evergreen, still fresh and relevant even today. Trist’s prowess are further seen on ‘Man Who Sailed’, where he begins scat singing, almost ‘in conversation’ with Ross Pederson, with each line responded to with a drum line, a conversation filled with energy and meaning.

Taking on ‘Cantaloop’ from their 2018 album, Cheryl Bentyne takes the lead on this multi-layered song, which can only be described as pure beauty that requires no real interpretation, just to allow ourselves to be immersed in the music and enjoy The Manhattan Transfer’s presence.

Bringing us towards the end of the set is ‘Groovin’, before ‘Boy From NYC’ as the band takes us straight to the shores of Manhattan, before traveling to ‘Birdland’ – no doubt their most famous number and a more than appropriate song to end the entire concert on, to rousing applause as the audience chimed in.

But with such a rare opportunity to see The Manhattan Transfer live, how could the audience let them off so easy? Returning for an encore, the quartet brought the energy way up again with ‘Tequila’, with everyone getting to their feet and dancing along – a reminder that there are some concerts the Esplanade should absolutely consider removing the seats for total freedom to jive.

Finishing off with ‘Embraceable You’, this delicate number was led by pianist Yaron, drummer Ross enters with gentle swipes on the snare drum with drum brushes, tender and loving as if bringing the entire audience into a warm embrace, with Bruce coming in on the double bass. This is a song that lets each person onstage shine, as one super group and family, proving that even after 50 years in the business, they’re still here to stay.

This experience more than showcases itself in the concert itself, with the well-planned set that knows exactly how to work the audience and bring us on a journey, allocating the right energy at each point in the set and giving the audience all they want and more. It’s no wonder that even today, fans remain fans and are still excited by their music, these voices and sounds lingering in our minds even after they travel to their next stop in Tokyo. In a sense then, one thinks of The Manhattan Transfer as timeless; the ‘transfer’ in their name translating to passing on that love for jazz from the previous generation to the ones of today, keeping the flame of good music alive and always and forever, a cornerstone of the industry,

The Manhattan Transfer played on 10th September 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of the Esplanade’s Mosaic Music Series. 

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