Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Manhattan Transfer Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Bop Doo-Wopp (1984, Atlantic)

C + 

Arguably the strangest album the band ever cut for Atlantic, this is a half-live, half-studio disc. Part of what makes the disc so weird it that the sequencing alternates between live and studio cuts rather than making them two distinct sides. The other unsettling trait of the album is that the studio cuts are a giant step backwards; the cringe-inducing “My Cat Fell in the Well” even has a rhythm track dating back to 1976, but with vocals from the new lineup laid atop it, which doesn’t at all prevent it from still sounding like an outtake from the first album, while the disc closes with an ill-advised cover of “Unchained Melody,” performed as a sped-up march, which seems more like something the Manhattan Transfer circa ’75 might have done. But the studio cuts aren’t all bad, and the doo-wop of “Baby Come Back to Me (The Morse Code of Love)” is great fun. The live tracks are even better, highlighted by “The Duke of Dubuque,” the scat bop of “Jeannine,” and “That’s the Way It Goes,” and this disc arguably would have been much stronger had they simply made this a full live album with the studio recording of “Baby Come Back to Me” thrown in as a bonus and kept cuts like “My Cat Fell in the Well” and “Unchained Melody” in the vault. 

Vocalese (1985, Atlantic)

A + 

The vocal quartet dispenses with pop entirely here, collaborating with the legendary Jon Hendricks and opting to devote a full album to vocalese, the practice of putting lyrics onto previously instrumental jazz pieces. It’s not the first time that the band has experimented with this – or teamed up with Hendricks, for that matter – but it’s the first time that they’ve actually dedicated a full disc to the concept, and it works on multiple levels. By doing a whole disc of these numbers, it both draws more attention to the artistic brilliance of the concept, and it also means that this is the most musically cohesive album from the Transfer yet. There are no pop or R&B excursions here – this is a pure jazz album, plain and simple. For pop fans, this might make the disc seem a little unappealing, but the group has never seemed quite so focused as it does here and that focus helps to make the group sound more enthusiastic here than they have in years. Highlights include Ray Charles’ “Ray’s Rockhouse,” “Sing Joy Spring” (boasting a trumpet solo from jazz great Dizzy Gillespie), “That’s Killer Joe,” “Another Night in Tunisia” (with Bobby McFerrin joining in as a fifth vocalist), the Thad Jones ballad “To You,” and Quincy Jones’ “Meet Benny Bailey.” The group’s rapid-fire scatting on “Airegin” and “Move” is pretty cool, too. It may lack the pop fun of Extensions or Bodies and Souls or Brasil, but this is arguably the group’s artistic masterpiece, and Grammy voters very much took notice, giving the band twelve nominations for this album alone!  

Brasil (1987, Atlantic)

A +

The group’s final album of the Eighties returns them to more pop-oriented territory, albeit this time with a pronounced world-music influence, the melodies here all penned by the likes of Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, and Ivan Lins. The opener, “Soul Food to Go,” sporting lyrics from, surprisingly enough, The Knack’s Doug Fieger, is perhaps the most underrated single the group ever made, and it’s an intoxicating blend of jazz, R&B, world, and pop influences, and you can almost even imagine the Talking Heads even covering it. “The Zoo Blues” (the second Fieger co-write here), with its Dada-esque lyrics and synth-funk musical bed, is a bit more avant-garde but is surprisingly hooky. The exuberant “Hear the Voices” sounds like a lost cut from Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66’s heyday, while the ballads “So You Say” and the dreamy “Agua” are simply lovely. Perhaps the greatest moment here, though – certainly for jazz fans, at least – is the first-side closer “Capim,” a gentle bossa-nova complete with a sax solo from jazz legend Stan Getz. This disc is every bit as good as Vocalese, and it’s got just enough pop in the mix to make it appealing to fans of Extensions as well. This is not to be missed.

The Offbeat of Avenues (1991, Columbia)

C –

The group – having left Atlantic, their label since 1975, for a new deal with Columbia – re-emerges after a four-year hiatus from the studio. The bad news is that the group has seen fit to rework its sound for the Nineties and consequently has saddled many of the cuts with programmed drums that are impossible to mistake for real drums. Why they did this is anyone’s guess – the band was long past its commercial peak at this point, so it’s not as if anything here really had a shot of landing on Top 40 radio – and it sounds utterly jarring and detracts from cuts that would otherwise have been fine, such as the title cut, “Women in Love,” and “What Goes Around Comes Around.” The disc is also very back-loaded and gets more listenable as it goes on, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t like the first few cuts: the ballad “A World Apart,” co-written by Michael McDonald and Ambrosia’s David Pack, is good, as are “Confide in Me” (written by Donald Fagen and which is thankfully much more organically-produced, although it consequently sticks out for that reason and doesn’t exactly fit in), the tropical epic “The Quietude,” and the jazzy closer “Blues for Pablo.” It’s not their best or catchiest set of material, but these aren’t terrible songs, either, and this might have at least been as good as Pastiche had they simply just gone about recording these songs in a more organic fashion. Instead, it ends up being the group’s least appealing disc since Jukin’.

Tonin’ (1995, Atlantic)

C  

An idea that sounds a whole lot more appealing on paper than it turns out to be in practice, this concept disc finds the group covering major AM radio classics from the ‘50s and ‘60s alongside an all-star cast of guest duet partners, many of whom appeared on the original versions of these songs, including Frankie Valli, Ben E. King, B.B. King, and Smokey Robinson. The group even manages to recruit Laura Nyro for a guest spot! The songs are mostly well-chosen and suit the group nicely with the exception of the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” a fun and fabulous song which is covered here with an almost comical amount of stiffness. Unfortunately, the disc suffers from the same production problems that plagued The Offbeat of Avenues – mainly, the use of drum programs on cuts like the album-opening cover of “Let’s Hang On” – but the four members of the Transfer themselves all sound great (check out the delightful harmonies on the wonderful cover of “Groovin’,” with the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere sitting in), and the album does work well when the group’s not trying nearly so hard to sound modern, such as on the Nyro-featuring cover of the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You” and the Bette Midler-featuring cover of “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” The group goes it alone on the closing cut, a beautiful acapella rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” The album’s slightly better than The Offbeat of Avenues, but it still seems like a wasted opportunity; this disc could have been twice as charming had the band kept the rhythm arrangements as warm and organic as the originals.

Swing! (1997, Atlantic)

B –

After the critical misfires of the last two discs, the Transfer returns to its nostalgia-oriented roots on this disc, devoted entirely to swing music. The disc’s pop appeal is minimal, to say the least, so this feels like a bit of an overcompensation for the last two discs and is likely to be of minimal interest to fans who prefer discs like Extensions or Brasil to their self-titled 1975 affair. On the bright side, though, the group is thankfully back to using a live band again, and this is consequently the warmest-sounding disc they’ve made since Vocalese, the group’s harmonies still as lovely here as they were on that disc as well. The only major flaw is that the band has inexplicably included a pair of cuts here that they’ve already previously recorded studio versions of, including “Down South Camp Meeting” (which originally showed up on Bodies and Souls) and the band’s third studio recording of “Java Jive.” It’s a pleasant disc, but not a necessary one. 

The Spirit of St. Louis (2000, Atlantic)

A

Easily the greatest disc the band has made since Brasil and its most innovative since Vocalese, this wildly creative album firmly has its feet planted in jazz, the group covering such standards as “Sugar,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” and “Blue Again,” so it doesn’t have the pop appeal of Brasil, but it also doesn’t sound like nearly as much of a novelty disc or an exercise in nostalgia as Swing! is, so it’s one you’re likely to come back to much more often than that disc. The performances are all wonderful, but what most makes this disc so incredibly attention-grabbing and novel is its production, which is equal parts retro and modern; it’s not nearly as purist in its sound and arrangements as Swing! and incorporates some modern touches, but it doesn’t try to be completely non-nostalgic, either, and it’s mixed in a way that makes you feel at times that you were listening to the disc on a Victrola. It’s the kind of disc that would make Tom Waits envious.

Vibrate (2004, Telarc)

B +

A disc that often feels like a conscious attempt to recapture the feel of the band’s early ‘80s albums, the band’s first and only outing on the Telarc label is largely in the pop vein, but like Extensions or Mecca for Moderns, its pop content is divided into more contemporary-sounding material (such as the great, Brenda Russell-written opener “Walkin in N.Y.,” a definite highlight here) and more retro-flavored pop (the disc closing with a covers medley consisting of the Fleetwoods classic “Come Softly to Me” and the Shirelles’ “I Met Him on a Sunday”), while the disc also tosses in a few jazz excursions like the impressive vocalese rendition of Miles Davis’ “The New JuJu Man (Tutu)” and, even better, a fabulous reading of Jobim’s “Core of Sound (Modinha).” The pop covers here are mostly very left-field choices – the group takes on the Beach Boys obscurity “Feel Flows” as well as a pair of Rufus Wainwright songs, including “Greek Song” – but they work surprisingly well. The only flaws of any real note is that the disc occasionally gets just a bit too cutesy, particularly on “Doodlin’,” and that the ‘30s pop standard “Embraceable You” – while not bad per se – doesn’t fit in here at all and ends up sticking out in a bad way.

The Symphony Sessions (2006, King)

C +

Neither a necessary disc nor a bad one, the foursome dips into their back catalog here and hand-selects a sampling of cuts to re-record in an orchestral setting. It’s an interesting idea and one that might have been even more so had the selections been a little more left-field, but the band largely – and predictably – sticks to more jazz-oriented material like “Birdland,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “To You,” and “Route 66.” But it’s all well-performed, and the best part about the disc is that it contains fresh and organic versions of songs from the drum-program-heavy The Offbeat of Avenues, so you finally get to hear what cuts like that disc’s title track or “The Quietude” would have sounded like without the dated ‘90s production. 

The Chick Corea Songbook (2009, Four Quarters)

A –

Only The Spirit of St. Louis bests this disc – a tribute to the music of the legendary jazz pianist who founded the ‘70s fusion group Return to Forever – as being the finest of the Transfer’s post-‘80s albums, and this is a very beautiful disc and a well-crafted album piece, to the extent that you really have to listen to the disc in full to fully appreciate some of the individual cuts, namely the interludes like “Children’s Song #15.” The band’s latter-day weak spot – its penchant for employing programmed drums – does noticeably rear its head again in a bad way on “Spain (I Can Recall),” but this is otherwise a mostly flawless disc, and there a lot of highlights here, including “Free Samba,” the jazzy “Time’s Lie,” and, best of all, the bossa-nova of “500 Miles High.”


Compilations:

Because the foursome’s music encompassed so many styles and often varied from disc to disc, first-time listeners will likely want to start off with a compilation and decide from there which studio albums would likely interest them the most. The best single-disc package available is the 1994 package The Very Best of Manhattan Transfer from Rhino. It’s got all the Top 40 hits, from “Operator” to “Spice of Life,” along with a well-chosen crop of lesser singles, fan favorites, and jazz classics. Its only flaw is that the sequencing isn’t chronological, which can make for a slightly off-kilter listen. If you want to go for a double-disc package, your best option is 2006’s The Definitive Pop Collection.

Live Albums:


There is no shortage of Manhattan Transfer live albums to choose from. Unfortunately, most of them focus on particular albums or genres and aren’t entirely representative of an average concert by the foursome. The 1987 package Live, for instance, focuses almost exclusively on material from Vocalese and surprisingly doesn’t even contain “Boy from New York City” (though there is a great, vibrant rendition of Extensions’ “Shaker Song” here.) The closest recorded document to what a Transfer concert sounded like in the group’s commercial prime is Rhino’s 1996 archival package Man-Tora! Live in Tokyo, which captures a 1983 live date from the band’s world tour in support of Bodies and Souls. It’s got live renditions of all four of their Top 40 hits up to that time, “Spice of Life” included, and also serves as a potpourri of all the group’s different stylistic excursions, from pop to jazz to its nostalgic beginnings (the set even closes with “Tuxedo Junction.”) It’s less likely to appeal to the band’s more jazz-minded base than Live or later live albums like Couldn’t Be Hotter, but it’s more rounded and contains a little something for everyone.