The Chick Corea Songbook
Significant as it is that the Manhattan Transfer has been around for 40 years, it is far more remarkable that those four decades have been marked by near-continuous artistic expansion and advancement. The Four Freshmen and the Hi-Los can statistically claim greater longevity, but the Manhattan Transfer must rightfully be credited as the most enduringly creative vocal group in jazz history. The key distinction, and the principal reason for the group’s sustainability, is that the Transfer has not simply built upon the foundation laid by the Freshmen and the Hi-Los. The Transfer has also drawn from all adjacent wells, cleverly appropriating everything from big-band swing and the bop-centric brilliance of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross to East Coast doo-wop and the West Coast intricacy of the Mel-Tones.
Over the course of 23 albums (24 if you count the 1969 one-off Jukin’), bass Tim Hauser, alto Janis Siegel, tenor Alan Paul and soprano Cheryl Bentyne (who replaced Laurel Massé in 1976) have taken continuous detours, rarely making a wrong turn.
Along the way, they’ve delivered more than their share of masterpieces, including the bold, vibrant Pastiche (with Massé) and the zoot-sharp Swing. But none, save the landmark Hendricks tribute Vocalese, can match the ingeniousness of The Chick Corea Songbook. In the liner notes, Siegel rightly describes it as a “magical and transformational odyssey.” It is less an album than a series of soul-stirring journeys, unfailingly respectful to their source while sagely retooled to take wing in fresh directions.
Songbook opens and closes with a new Corea composition (featuring Corea himself on synthesizer), “Free Samba,” a transcontinental, perhaps even trans-planetary, exercise in soaring liberty that cleverly hints at the varied adventures it brackets. There is the innocent passage from birth to infancy shaped by Siegel and Bentyne around “Children’s Song 1,” arranged by Fred Hersch, whose gently tinkling keystrokes lead all four voices on a playful calliope ride. There is the dazzlingly cacophonous circus train, steered by Paul, which winds through “Pixiland Rag.” There is the spicy paella of Siegel’s “The Story of Anna & Armando” (based on “Armando’s Rhumba”) conveyed on waves of brass as it probes the deep passion of Corea’s parents.
Hauser teams with lyricist Van Dyke Parks (the notorious, widely misunderstood eccentric who toiled with Brian Wilson on the ill-fated Smile) for the antithetical gems “One Step Closer” and “Another Roadside Attraction.” The first, based on “The One Step,” is a softly swinging world tour that ultimately crosses the Rubicon in pursuit of pure, lasting love; the other is a hypnotic, chant-fueled inner voyage built upon “Space Circus” to create an otherworldly carnival. Though Corea fans will recognize Neville Potter’s lyrics for “500 Miles High” and “Times Lie,” they’ll also surely appreciate the free-floating expansiveness of Michele Weir’s arrangement of the former (gorgeously accented by guest percussionist Alex Acuña) and the multilayered, Hersch-arranged joyousness of the unfettered latter. Familiarity reaches maximum comfort and inspiration on what languidly unfurls as a majestic meander through Corea and Al Jarreau’s “Spain,” propelled by fogged reveries of desire and punctuated by the suggestion of staccato heels on hardwood.
Hauser and Paul have both commented that this project has been on the group’s backburner since the 1970s. Would a younger, less seasoned Manhattan Transfer have handled such material with the same care, precision and imagination? Not likely. It has required the interceding decades for the foursome to reach the necessary level of assured, relaxed maturation. In other words, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem, this is what 40 sounds like.