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SOUNDS AROUND TOWN MANHATTAN TRANSFER : Thinner Times : Bowing to fiscal realities, the jazz-pop group will appear at Wheeler Hot Springs with only piano and bass accompaniment.


And it came to pass that the well-known jazz-cum-pop vocal group Manhattan Transfer was booked into the restaurant known as Wheeler Hot Springs, nestled above the town of Ojai.

But how did it happen, given that this is a group that traditionally plays much larger venues? According to Transfer co-founder Tim Hauser, it all started in a supermarket parking lot, where Hauser ran into Wheeler owner Tom Russell. Russell once owned a place in Fort Lauderdale frequented by the band.

Hauser mentioned to him that the group was working up a new show, and Russell suggested they give it a trial run in the intimate confines of his place in Ojai. That is where fans will find them on Saturday night.

What they'll hear is not the elaborate revue the vocal quartet at the core of Manhattan Transfer has been known to wrap around itself. This will be a streamlined affair, with only piano and bass accompaniment. The idea was not so much a flash of inspiration as a response to fiscal realities.

"We were on tour this summer and we saw the effects of the economy," said Hauser in an interview last week on his 50th birthday. "With musicians, staff and technicians, we were carrying 30 people. This way, we'll be down to nine. We're going to see how it works. If we feel it's working, we'll keep on doing it. If we kept our full boat, we'd probably wind up not working at all."

There is also a musical virtue in the lean approach.

"For us, it's like singing at rehearsal, where there's not a lot of stuff going on. You just hear the voices."

That was the way it began in 1972, when Hauser, then a Manhattan cabbie, was introduced by a passenger to future bandmate Janis Siegel. The band's name comes from the title of a John Dos Passos novel.

Next October, the group--Hauser, Siegel, Alan Paul and Cheryl Bentyne--will celebrate their 20th anniversary. During that time they've chalked up 14 albums, a mantle full of Grammys and a worldwide core of devotees.

Still, some critics and detractors have found the group's campy humor, retro-aesthetics and group vocalizing, which they say lacks distinctive singular voices--less than thrilling.

Their latest release is "The Offbeat of Avenues," the first for Columbia records and the first album since 1988's "Brasil."

"We had a stretch between albums," said Hauser, "because we were burnt out from touring and also it took awhile to switch labels. It was a good three years off. We'll never do that again. It's hard on your bankbook."

Is Manhattan Transfer a jazz group, per se? Not exactly, especially if you consult "The Offbeat of Avenues." A grab bag of styles, the album romps through nostalgic doo-wop, soft-core hip hop, be-bop and capital-P pop. While many of the tunes were inside jobs, written by the band members, the album also features "Confide in Me," a rare unrecorded tune by ex-Steely Dan man Donald Fagen, and also a version of Gil Evans' "Blues for Pablo."

The Fagan tune deals with a recovering addict. "Blues for Pablo," originally written by Evans for Miles Davis and commemorating the Spanish Civil War, is the most intricate piece on the album, and the one that most clearly falls into a jazz category. But, despite the fact that the album is faring well on the Billboard jazz chart, the Evans track is usually overlooked.

"I think it went over a lot of people's heads," said Hauser. "It doesn't get played on the radio much and you don't hear people talking about it. I think it's the best thing on the album."

The subject of jazz radio is a touchy one for Hauser. "I hate to be snippy, but the way radio is today, who's going to play it? Half of the jazz stations don't even play jazz--they play elevator music and call it jazz. When I was a kid, playlists were just a lot more open."

Can he predict which tunes will go over with radio and which won't?

"No. We don't really think that way. I guess that's why we don't sell a lot of records," he said with a laugh.

"Well, there aren't that many acts who have been around for 20 years who get out and do it like we do, so we must be doing something right. But we've never been that big of a record-selling act, because I guess we didn't want to (mess) with the music to make it commercial.

"We knew that if we did, we were going to have to go out and sing it that way year after year, and that would have driven us to madness. This way, we can still be precocious. I don't care. I've got a nice home here and my family's well taken care of. I don't need a Beverly Hills mansion. To see my 2 1/2-year-old son take his clothes off and run around the house is enough for me."

By this juncture, the Manhattan Transfer has become a veritable institution, a fact of life on the music scene. Their rich harmonies and honeycomb vocal arrangements may be especially timely now, with the recent success of other vocal-oriented acts such as Take 6 and Bobby McFerrin's voice-generated projects.

The Manhattan Transfer's sparkily resume could scarcely have been predicted, though, when Hauser launched the group.

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