Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mark Winkler and Cheryl Bentyne's Eastern Standard Time

The first time I heard The Manhattan Transfer, I was so young that I had no idea what kind of music it was. Maybe it was an early appearance on Saturday Night Live, or maybe it had to be before that since SNL started in 1975, when I was in the eighth grade. I certainly had to know this kind of jazz already, right? But I was raised in Southern California in the '60s and '70s--my 56th birthday was yesterday, by the way--and I grew up on a steady diet of rock and roll and the ultra-tame stuff my parents liked, everything from Eddy Arnold to Johnny Mathis. The Manhattan Transfer was so different, I didn't know how to process it. Now I understand and appreciate this type of dazzling urbane jazz, and after all these years it seems surprising that Cheryl Bentyne, one of the long-time members of TMT, is still out there making the same music--and doing it well.

Maybe I was initially surprised because she still looks great, and her voice is just as strong and beautiful as ever. But she's not one of the original members. This singing ensemble first appeared in 1969, which made me expect someone much older after doing the math. Cheryl didn't join until 1979 (which means she wasn't one of the four singers I witnessed back when I was young), but she's still an active member of that group and she's also released a dozen solo albums over the years. As it turns out, she's only a little older than me, which is why she sounds so vibrant--because she is...er, we are. For the last eight years, however, she's been performing with singer/lyricist/producer Mark Winkler, and as the promotional material states they go together like "champagne and caviar." That statement alone foreshadows what you'll hear on their new album, Eastern Standard Time. It's the kind of music you might hear at an event that might be referred to as "black tie." This is jazz that lives and breathes the island of Manhattan.

This is their second album together. Their first, West Coast Cool, was released in 2013 and recaptured the classic '50s "West Coast sound" represented by tunes such as "Talk of the Town" and "Route 66." This follow-up obviously takes place on the other coast, expanding beyond the watery borders of Manhattan, and features music that reflects Bentyne's adventurous past with the Transfer, everything from "The Best Is Yet to Come," "The Gentleman Is a Dope" and even "Walk on the Wild Side"--even though the duo censors themselves on that famous line about Candy. While the magic is centered on the two and how they interact as a team--they do have an undeniable chemistry on every track--this album also boasts some of the greatest jazz musicians on the scene such as drummer Dave Tull, pianist Rich Eames, bassist Gabe Davis, sax player Bob Sheppard, percussionist Kevin Winard and guitarist Grant Geissman. (Guest stars include cellist Stephanie Fife and guitarist Pat Kelley.) In other words, every aspect of this album oozes class.

Circling back to that chemistry between Winkler and Bentyne, it's clear that they really like each other--they've reportedly become great friends over the last few years. You can hear that in the music, their delivery, the way they sing as if they're having a real conversation and just not taking turns at singing. Bentyne's voice is perfectly calibrated and coated with honey, while Winkler is more playful and whimsical. Every word they sing is a projection of their vivacious personalities, and by the end of the album you'll feel like you've made a couple of new friends. If you're already a fan on TMT, this album will provide you with everything you crave. You already know this music, and now it's time to dig in.

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