March 2004

Cheryl Bentyne: Manhattan's Latest Solo Transfer

Cheryl Bentyne has plenty to celebrate. This spring, the fire-haired chanteuse with the glorious pipes marks her 25th anniversary alongside Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel and Alan Paul in the Manhattan Transfer. And just recently, Bentyne passed a more personal milestone, blowing out 50 birthday candles on January 17.

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Cheryl Bentyne
By Shonna Valeska
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Cheryl Bentyne
By Shonna Valeska

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As a sort of b-day present to herself (and a welcome gift to those of us who have long been awaiting her reemergence as a solo performer), Bentyne has released Talk of the Town (Telarc), a collection of a dozen of her favorite standards, plus one self-penned original, produced by her pianist-arranger husband Corey Allen. Recorded some 21 months ago in Brooklyn and released last year in Japan, Talk finds the Seattle-born soprano in excellent company for her first stateside solo outing since 1992's boldly experimental, Mark Isham-produced Something Cool. Backed by a kickass trio comprised of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Lewis Nash, Bentyne also welcomes such disparately appealing guests as Chuck Mangione (who lifts a soft-swingin' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" off its hinges with a soaring flugelhorn solo), David "Fathead" Newman and Take 6 teammates Mark Kibble and Alvin Chea.

Like the warm yin to Something Cool's icy yang, Talk suggests a potent blend of the sizzling young Annie Ross and the sassy mid-'50s Lee Wiley. Indeed, if you've seen Far From Heaven, writer-director Todd Haynes' vibrant homage to 1950s melodrama, you'll appreciate that Talk sounds like precisely the sort of album suburban housewife Cathy Whitaker (played by Julianne Moore) would have on the living room hi-fi for the cocktail hour. Such coziness was precisely Bentyne's goal. "I wanted to get that across," she says, "because that's exactly what it was like in the studio. Very intimate."

Without her Transfer confreres beside her, Bentyne confesses, "Vocally I felt very naked. But with Kenny and John and Lewis I didn't have time to think about it. I had to step up to the plate and give my very best performance with these great musicians. We'd just count off a tune and these guys would carry me like floating on a cloud."

Though Bentyne suggests that the song selection process was slightly haphazard- "I just picked my wish list of the songs I'd always wanted to sing. Some of them made it and some of them didn't, then Corey just took the ball and ran with it"-Talk strikes a lovely balance between bouncy uptempo numbers and bluesy ballads. Cole Porter, perhaps Bentyne's all-time songwriting hero ("I want to do his music for the rest of my life," she enthuses), is represented by a creamy "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" and by a haunting "Get Out of Town" cleverly blended with the album's tender, heartbreaking title track. There's a double nod to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross with a spirited rendition of the Ross-Art Farmer delight "Farmer's Market" and a softly sensuous reading of Hendricks and Monk's "Little Butterfly." Elsewhere, Ray Noble's dreamy "The Very Thought of You" is wrapped in indigo velvet and Matt Dennis' playful "Everything Happens to Me" proves a silken study in self-absorption.

If there's an oddity among Bentyne's choices it's "Girl Talk," Bobby Troup's mid-'60s homage to female cattiness. Agreeing the song's message is slightly less than liberated, she admits, "I changed the lyric a little," substituting "The goddess touch they love so much" for the decidedly misogynistic "The weaker sex, the speaker sex."

"It's representative of an era that I find very innocent, very naïve and, in a sense, very attractive," Bentyne says, "because I picture Julie London doing it with the original lyric and, hey, she was a babe! She was there for the guys. Also, I'm an actress when I sing, so it's just a character I'm playing. It was Corey's idea that we get the boys from Take 6 to back me up. I got two of the six, that's all I could afford, so I call them Take 2. I got the top voice and the bottom voice and I sing somewhere in the middle."

Perhaps the album's brightest gem is a slightly lesser known Troup classic. Bentyne and Barron combine for an achingly brilliant "The Meaning of the Blues" that'll kick you right in the solar plexus. "Kenny didn't know that song," Bentyne says, "so on the first take he wasn't sure about it. On the second take was this fabulous stride-style solo he played. We were in the studio saying, 'Holy shit! Never thought of anyone taking that song to that place!'"

With Talk now on store shelves, Bentyne is resting up for a killer schedule that interweaves solo gigs with Transfer concerts in support of the group's first studio album (part of a multidisc deal with Telarc that began with last year's live Couldn't Be Hotter) since the 2000 Armstrong tribute, The Spirit of St. Louis. The new disc, which is scheduled to come out in the fall, "has much more of our creative juices flowing again," Bentyne says. "There's some pop stuff and some Latin stuff and some straightahead vocalese. There's a Brubeck tune and new things from the likes of Rufus Wainwright and, my personal favorite, we vocalize Miles Davis' 'Tutu.' We're going back to our more eclectic phase. I'm really excited about it because it's going to feature all our individual tastes. We've all brought things to it from very different areas and had to meld it into one sound."

Frustrated by the common misconception that the 12-time Grammy winners, arguably the most dynamically diverse vocal group of all time, is nothing more than a nostalgia act, Bentyne says their musical interests are so wide-ranging, "We can't even put a stamp on ourselves! And I think that's what has kept, in a good way, the artistic insanity in the group. It's what's kept the schizophrenic side of our creativity alive."

Originally published in March 2004
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