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The Harmonizing Four

A 33-year-old vocal group continues to defy reason.


"Our manager at the time said any publicity was good," recalls longtime member Janis Siegel, reached at her home in Greenwich Village. "We did stuff from a lot of black groups, but we were just mining this American music, looking at everything from a musical perspective."

They're often compared to the jazz vocal improvisers Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, but the band's real models according to Siegel were the '40s swing vocalist "The Pied Pipers" and '60s folk band the Kingston Trio, groups that are innovative, influential and deeply out of fashion.

The band has evolved over time. "We've been together 33 years this month," Siegel says. "Tim [Hauser] is the founder, leader and benevolent dictator; he came up with a lot of the material from his vast record collection. Alan [Paul] came from Broadway and did the staging. I did a lot of arrangements and led rehearsals."

The group took final form when Laurel Masse left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by current member Cheryl Bentyne. "The dynamics have shifted so that now everybody does everything — produce, write arrangements and perform," Siegel says. "We've all got our own projects, which broaden our horizons and show us new ways of working. We bring that energy back in to spice up the [Manhattan Transfer] experience."

The band's most recent album, "Vibrate," demonstrates the solo/group cross-fertilization. It has as many individual leads as ensemble workouts. The songs are drawn from typically eclectic sources -- from Miles Davis to a soulfully straightforward Beach Boys cover to several folkish pieces from songwriter Rufus Wainwright. "It's a real mixed bag," says Siegel, who promises that more than half of the Richmond show will be drawn from the album.

The precise vocal architectures leave little room for improvisation. "People don't come to hear us for that," Siegel says. "The real skill is singing consistently and accuracy, blending with the chords while being in the moment."

Her solo projects let her expand her sound in more traditional jazz settings. Her latest CD, "Sketches of Broadway," is a subtle and expressive exploration of beautiful, but seldom-visited, show tunes. Working with great young musicians, including recent Richmond visitors Stefon Harris and Antonio Sanchez, Siegel's sound is far less flashy and more spacious than her work with the Transfer.

She stretches out even more on other people's gigs, notably as a member of vocal master Bobby McFerrin's "Voicestra." "It's a great experience when you spend the entire two hours of a performance in the moment," she says. "[McFerrin's] a genius, for starters. You have to listen so intently. You are working with all these different timbres, all these registers, and no written music."

However widely she ventures on her own, the Manhattan Transfer is home. The artistic interdependence of the band's concept, sustained over the years, has forged a unique relationship among the four singers. "It's certainly familiar, at times warm and fuzzy," Siegel says. "Sometimes I feel like it is a great internal dialogue that we're having with ourselves." If so, it's an internal dialogue a lot of people want to hear. S

Manhattan Transfer performs Monday, Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m. at the Carpenter Center. Tickets cost $15-$30, call 262-8100 or go to

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