Spirit of St. Louis
Talking with Manhattan Transfer
by Mark Ruffin
The Manhattan Transfer was conspicuously quiet during the international celebration of Duke Ellington’s centennial two years ago. The venerable vocal quartet is currently on the road performing music from their new Louis Armstrong tribute album The Spirit of St. Louis.
“While everyone else was doing Duke, we thought we’d get a head start on Louis,” said Transfer vocalist Janis Siegel. “In a way, I think Louis Armstrong was more interesting to us. “He was one of the greatest vocal improvisers, almost the beginning of jazz vocals.
“Certainly there was his playing, which was phenomenal,” she continued. “Then there was this whole body of vocal work that had never been interpreted. “That attracted us.”
Throughout their nearly 30 years together, unpredictability has been the standard by which Manhattan Transfer operates. Over the years they have tackled different styles of group-harmony vocals. From 40’s be-bop to 50’s doo-wop, from Brazilian music to even 70’s disco and 90’s hip-hop. The group thrives on doing something completely different.
“We’re just confusing, period,” Siegel said laughing.
The singer said that they were inspired by Ellington in a “very obtuse way,” on their 1991 album, The Offbeat of Avenues. The other female vocalist, Cheryl Bentyne, and Siegel both listened to music from the great composer’s jungle music period for a creative source. As with that album, and most of their releases, including The Spirit of St. Louis, each member did massive research before coming into the recording studio.
“The research was very enlightening for me, in particular,” Siegel said. ” “I had never really gone bank and listen to early Armstrong stuff. Plus, I read a biography of his, so at the same time that I was listening to the music, I was reading about what was happening in his life.”
Because the breadth of Armstrong’s work is so massive, Siegel agreed that it is nearly impossible to listen to everything he recorded. She also pointed out that each member seemed to gravitate towards different periods in the trumpeter’s long career.
Tim Hauser picked a lot of early Armstrong like the ageless classic Struttin’ With Some Bar-Be-Que, while Alan Paul went more with the big band music that he could write long lyric lines to. Siegel went more towards the small groups and the Armstrong duets with Ella Fitzgerald.
“But none of us went directly to any of the tunes that Armstrong is famous for,” Siegel pointed out. “If you asked the man or woman on the street to name three Louis Armstrong tunes, I’m afraid they would say Hello Dolly, Mack The Knife and What A Wonderful World.
Needless to say, the Transfer didn’t go for the obvious on their new recording.
“The record company probably would’ve creamed in their pants to get a nostalgia record,” she said with her frequent slight giggle. “But that’s what we wanted to do.”
The Spirit of St. Louis is not some frolicking star-studded big band jazz trip with some Crescent City neo-classic trumpet stud playing the role of Armstrong. Instead, the versatile quartet, with the help of rising producing star, Craig Street, weaves a modern, yet traditional New Orleans tapestry. The songs are associated with the trailblazing jazz man, but the music has more to do with the latter 20th century and comes off as a tribute to the city known as the Big Easy,
“It really is,” the singer concurred. “That was a little bit of a surprise, but it is so fitting. “There’s some zydeco, some Louis Prima, who came from New Orleans and was totally influenced by Armstrong. The closest thing to our sound are the songs New Orleans and When You Wish Upon A Star.
“Every cut didn’t have a lot of four-part harmony. We did a lot of different kind of voicings and vocal arrangement.”
The album even has some of that country flavored r&b doo-wop that Allen Toussaint was practicing in New Orleans with the Neville Brothers in the 60’s, but it’s draped over very modern arrangements. There are traditional strings instruments like the banjo and the dobro, but there are also electronic guitar loops.
“We were actually anxious to get the musical rug pulled out from under us,” Siegel said. “What’s the good in doing the same thing over and over. If it gets stale for you, then the audience will feel it.
“We feel there’s a certain style to this record and a kind of respect for the past. Plus, it was really fun to mix and match different styles with the Armstrong influence.”