Though such early career collaborations as West Side Story and Gypsy yielded significant fodder for jazz artists, the show tunes that Stephen Sondheim later shaped by himself remain seldom covered (save the ubiquitous “Send in the Clowns”). Many of his intricately crafted songs just don’t lend themselves easily to reinterpretation. Yet, with support from several gifted arrangers, the Manhattan Transfer’s Cheryl Bentyne proves effective at the art of reimagining Sondheim’s densely shadowed work.
“Clowns” is here, saved ’til last; it’s a dreamy, Transfer-worthy treatment propelled by cajón and shaker and shaped by Take 6’s Mark Kibble, who unites with Naturally 7’s Armand Hutton on backing vocals. Among other familiar selections: a bubbly “The Ladies Who Lunch,” featuring special guests Tierney Sutton and the Transfer’s Janis Siegel, with a curiously effective nod to “Killer Joe” from arranger Jamieson Trotter; a lithe, tender “Not a Day Goes By”; a spirited, asymmetric “Everybody Says Don’t,” on which arranger and bassist Kevin Axt is paired with drummer Dave Tull; and a kaleidoscopic, edge-of-sanity “Comedy Tonight” that, courtesy of arranger Bevan Manson, blends Baroque courtliness with Big Top buffoonery.
Digging deeper into the Sondheim songbook, Bentyne adds the obscure “Sand,” featuring a cleverly shifting arrangement by Eli Brueggemann; a strings-drenched “Move On” (from Sunday in the Park With George); and, alone with pianist Tom Zink, Passions’ haunting “I Wish I Could Forget You.”