NCSU’s April 30 “… Gala Evening With The Manhattan Transfer” – the official name of the event – was a grand night for a good cause, with excellent food and drink and a swinging performance by one of the greatest musical acts of all time. The cause was the annual fund-raiser for the Arts at North Carolina State University. At most publicly-funded educational institutions (and many private ones), the arts tend to get the least attention when it comes to loosening up the purse strings. (You won’t see any bake sales for the football team at NC State!) Despite this situation, which may never change, there is a tremendous amount of support for the arts, and many people turned out for this gala at the Talley Student Center. Preceding the headline act was a lovely reception which included wonderful food and wine and tables full of items donated for a silent auction. The usually somewhat distressing interior of this building was transformed, and there was a very high-society, sophisticated feel to the entire evening.

Lovely gowned women and tuxedoed gents filed into Stewart Theater for the alleged eight thirty start time of the concert. About 50 more minutes were then taken up with speeches, presentations, and general kibbitzing. At one point, the musicians actually came out and conspicuously took their places; by their actions they were saying, loud and clear, “Let’s get this show on the road!” Finally the emcee introduced Manhattan Transfer and the four familiar artists with their one-and-only sound launched right into “Doodlin’,” the Horace Silver jazz classic. It wasn’t a good beginning, for they sounded lazy, uninspired, and a bit behind the band, but I definitely chalk this up to their protracted wait because they very quickly went from zero to 100 and put on a vibrant, energetic, and fairly long show.

Manhattan Transfer is special for many reasons – one of their most unique features is the fact that they have had the same members for almost 30 years. Tim Hauser, Alan Paul, and Janis Siegel were part of the original formation of the group in 1972, and Cheryl Bentyne came aboard to replace Laurel Masse in 1978. Like many successful groups that have not just endured but thrived through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Manhattan Transfer has dabbled in many styles and approaches, but make no mistake about it, they are foremost jazz musicians. Each singer has tremendous vocal control, range, and a special sound, but it is the combination of their voices that sets them apart. One of their specialties is something called “Vocalese,” which is also the name of an early recording that is among their biggest-selling and most critically-acclaimed releases. This is not the same as “scatting,” in which a singer basically improvises wordlessly, like a jazz instrumentalist – Ella Fitzgerald was the acknowledged master of this. “Vocalese” involves singing words written for a well-known pre-existing instrumental solo. An example is Coleman Hawkins’ saxophone solo in “Body and Soul.” Manhattan Transfer makes this one of their specialties, sometimes simulating entire sections of a big band, as they also did with “Four Brothers.”

The band that nudged its way on stage to get the show rolling was superb. Drummer Tom Brechtlein played behind a plexiglas sound suppressor but was heard loud and clear, supporting the action without overpowering. Michael Bowie played a solid-body electric upright bass for most of the show. Keyboardist and music director Yaron Gershovsky used his various instruments to great effect. To me, the musical star was guitarist Wayne Johnson. He could switch styles on a dime, going with ease from unobtrusive chordal comping to complex jazz figures to screaming rock solos. They all got hotter as the night wore on – this very generous show lasted without a break till about 11 p.m. They performed many of their big hits, and since they are impeccably crafted vocal arrangements sung by the same four people who made the original recordings, the selections sounded just like the originals. Each of the four members also got chances to take turns as soloists, giving the others well-deserved breaks. Janice Siegel did a great raunchy blues number and probably embarrassed a few men and their wives in the front row when she sang to them. Surprisingly, the weakest solo singer was founder Tim Hauser. His attempt at the beautiful ballad “The More I See You” was forced and vocally weak.

Manhattan Transfer got the biggest ovation and recognition for their top-40 hit “Birdland,” a “vocalese” of the Weather Report hit of the same name. What an incredible evening! Unless they are great actors who can fake excitement and energy after 30 years of performing together, this is a group that seems not to age, and their sound remains fresh and alive. I last saw them about 15 years ago and they are as good as ever. Hopefully their talents added to the coffers of the arts organizations at NCSU.