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JAZZ REVIEWS : An Exceptional Manhattan Transfer in Wiltern Benefit

June 26, 1989|DON HECKMAN

The rule of thumb for benefit concerts is for musical groups to keep it simple, stick with their hits and smile a lot. The result is usually an evening of music safely within the taste restrictions of moneyed audiences.

Saturday night's Wiltern Theatre performance featuring the Manhattan Transfer fund-raising effort for the Mountains Trust Benefit (to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains) was, for the most part, a welcome exception.

The group's members--Janis Siegel, Alan Paul, Tim Cheryl Bentyne--performed individually and collectively throughout a program that managed to mix predictably frothy jazz and easy pop with some highly adventurous playing by the lesser-known artists on the bill.

With nearly 17 years of togetherness under their belts, the Transfer has become a masterful musical ensemble. The harmonies they generated on their feature ballad, Thad Jones' lovely "To You," resulted in a blended sound with the singularly personal identity of the Ellington saxophone section. They were almost as impressive with numbers that ranged from Brazilian sambas and funky rock to briskly articulated jazz.

The solo spots, however, were less impressive. Hauser kept a good face on his struggle with Bobby Timmons' "Dat Dere," but the phrasing on the song's bridge eluded him. Bentyne's overly histrionic reading of "Something Cool" missed the point of the song, then compounded the problem by omitting the climactic final bridge. Paul, however, provided a lovely dedication to the Mountain Fund with an original piece dedicated to the wildlife of the mountains.

Siegel, perhaps the best pure jazz singer in the group, was more effective with a thoughtful interpretation of "Key Largo" (performed with alto saxophonist Richie Cole) and a humorous duo with singer-songwriter-producer Robert Kraft.

In a brief solo stint, altoist Cole seemed reluctant to display the be-bop licks that are the meat and potatoes of his style, opting instead for the stance and the manner of a crowd-pleasing hipster.

Singer-guitarist Kenny Rankin's set was more typical. One of the finest interpretive performers in pop music, he applied his soaringly pristine tenor to the songs--notably "Blackbird," "With A Little Help From My Friends" and "You Are So Beautiful"--that have dominated his repertoire for the last few years.

The evening's boldest moments, however, were supplied by Kraft, guitarist Wayne Johnson and the duo of Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah.

Better known, perhaps, as the producer of recordings by Bette Midler and Bruce Willis, among others, Kraft has recently emerged as a wonderfully witty songwriter-singer. Mixing traces of Tom Waits and Randy Newman with his own whimsical variations on urban hip, he sang an affectionate reminiscence of "The Beat Generation," then countered with an acerbic portrait of Hollywood deal-making titled "Failing Upward" that was almost too true to be funny.

Johnson, the Manhattan Transfer's guitarist for the past decade, moved into the spotlight with his current Trio in a set filled with startling rhythmic twists and turns. A superior melodist, who is vividly aware of the value of soft and loud dynamic contrasts, Johnson made a powerful case for himself as a jazz fusion star of the '90s.

Finally, Strunz and Farah's energetic blending of Latin, North African and jazz rhythms gave the program's second half a propulsive burst of energy.

Satirist Harry Shearer's bits and pieces of humorously topical storytelling filled the brief gaps between musical acts.

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