When last we saw them, the Manhattan Transfer -- singer Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, Cheryl Bentyne and Janis Siegel -- seemed to be sitting on top of the world. It was Grammy night 1989 and the group's "Brasil" album had just won the award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, beating out the likes of Gloria Estefan's Miami Sound Machine and the Beach Boys. Suddenly, it looked as if this vocal quartet was poised for big-time pop success.
And then . . . nothing.
Now, the Manhattan Transfer is back, with a new album, a new tour, a new label and a new sense of direction. Sit down with "The Offbeat of Avenues" -- the group's first recording since "Brasil" -- and you'll be astonished at the vitality of its sound, from the hip-hop/be-bop fusion of "What Goes Around Comes Around" to the stunning virtuosity of "Blues for Pablo." Hearing it, you'd swear the group had almost been reborn in making the album.
In a sense, says Tim Hauser, they had. "When we did our 'Brasil' album and went out and toured, we did it quite extensively," he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "When that was over, we all had a lot of different reasons to not want to go out and tour for a while."
One of the reasons had to do with the group's relationship with its label at the time, Atlantic Records. "We had been with Atlantic for 14, 15 years, and you start to feel like old furniture after a while, because people are always excited about the new act. And even though we would try to make changes from album to album, after a while, the changes weren't greeted with the kind of attitude that we felt they deserved."
That was particularly true with "Brasil," complains Hauser. "It didn't get an awful lot of airplay," he says. "We thought it was a really good album. We felt 'Soul Food To Go' should have been a hit. It sounded like a hit when we heard it the first time; we thought, 'What a great groove. What a great song. With English lyrics, that could be a hit.' "
"Hold on," he says, interrupting himself. "My son is screaming. Which introduces another reason the Transfer went on hiatus: Hauser's 2 1/2 -year-old son, Basie.
"My wife was pregnant with her second child -- my first -- and I didn't have any great reason for wanting to go out and tour after the birth of my son," he says after calm is restored. "Plus we were just tired from traveling so much and working as much as we were. So we decided we'd take a while off, and see if we could just develop new ideas."
One year stretched into two, then three, as the group negotiated its exit from Atlantic and a new deal with Columbia. Finally, last September, the Manhattan Transfer got back to work. "It was real hard getting started again," laughs Hauser. "When you're away for a while, you really lose your work groove." Further complicating things was the group's indecision over what kind of album to make.
"But after battling back and forth . . . we wound up writing almost all the songs, which we've never done before. That was a real adventure."
It was also a real breakthrough for the four. "For us, that's like kind of going through another door in our career," he says. "We started out as singers who sang material that other people wrote, and it was the way we styled the material that gave us uniqueness. The whole thing was selecting songs that lent themselves to ensemble singing, the kind of sound that we had -- because we were singers.
"Some people are singers and that's it," he adds. "They don't write. There are a few writers who really sing great too. But that was never our thing. I never really thought of myself as a writer. But all of a sudden, this thing started, and it worked. So it's real exciting to know that there's this whole other thing that's there for us."
Although the songs on "The Offbeat of Avenues" touch on a variety of styles, the album's real constant is jazz. Some of the musical references are obvious, like Hauser's New Orleans-style Blue Serenade," or "Blues for Pablo," a vocal setting of the famous Miles Davis/Gil Evans piece from "Sketches of Spain." Others, though, are more subtle. "Sassy," for instance, is partly a tribute to the great jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, but not entirely.
"After Sarah's passing, Janis and Cheryl decided to write references to her," Hauser explains. "But the song actually did not start out as a tribute to Sarah. Actually, Janis said part of it really had to do with herself, thinking about when she was holding down a job as a waitress and then singing at night. You know, wanting to hang out with the band and the guys, but having to get up in the morning and wait on tables because that paid the rent."
It's no surprise, then, to learn that Hauser and his fellow harmonizers still prefer the jazzier parts of their repertoire. "Those are the tunes that I prefer singing," he says, "because the solos are very challenging and the chord changes are just real thrilling to sing through."
Not only that, but those jazz tunes are the ones which give the group's backing band a chance to stretch out -- something Hauser particularly enjoys. "The band smokes," he says proudly. "You've got to have somebody good behind you. We prefer to hire players who won't lay back behind us. We tell them, too. We say, 'Push us, challenge us, play your ass off. Make us work hard. That's what we're there for.' And they do."
When: Sept. 1, 8 p.m.
Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion.
Tickets: $25 reserved, $19.50 lawn.
Call: 625-4230 for information, 625-1400 for tickets.