The Book of Love
The Manhattan Transfer
The Symphony Sessions
How’s this for an album concept: “The story of a love affair—from the thrill of infatuation and flirting to longing, then lust, on to disillusion and ultimately to ‘goodbye.’”
The concept could be considered either cute or pretentious, but the more important question is how do the songs themselves hold up? In the case of Cheryl Bentyne’s The Book of Love, the answer is unequivocal—a strong set, with or without its theme.
Bentyne, the soprano voice of the Manhattan Transfer, has been one of the busiest women in music over the last couple of years, recording and touring both as a solo artist and with the oft-performing vocal quartet. The Book of Love is her third Telarc release in as many years, and like its predecessors, it is irresistible. Unlike the mixed setlists of Talk of the Town and Let Me Off Uptown, though, this one is more focused in its ambience, slow and sensual from start to finish.
The opening wash of strings on “You Don’t Know Me” sets the tone right away, as Bentyne turns this Eddy Arnold chestnut from the mid-‘50s, best known as a huge hit for Ray Charles in 1962, into a beautifully mournful ballad of longing. Sammy Cahn’s “Be My Love” amplifies the mood in a simple setting featuring Bentyne’s gorgeous voice accompanied only by classical guitar, with a dreamy cello solo in the middle.
The wistulness begins to fade with the arrival of “Blue Moon,” a duet with John Pizzarelli that includes an opening verse that most of us have never heard before and a Stephane Grappelli-like violin obbligato. By the time the birds and bees arrive on Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It,” the romantic heat is beginning to ignite, leading to the slow-burning flame of “Don’t Say a Word.” (“Turn out the light/what a sweet discovery when you kiss me in the quiet.”) Bob Sheppard’s tenor sax solo is sheer sex.
The title track isn’t the “Book of Love” you’re thinking of, the doo-wop classic by The Monotones; this one is a recently written ballad by Stephen Merritt presented in a shower of sweet harmony featuring two of the guys from Take 6 in their distinctive vocal blend. “You Taught My Heart to Sing” is just Bentyne alone with pianist-husband Corey Allen. “You Go to My Head” brings back the strings and picks up the tempo ever so slightly.
But remember, this is not all lust and new love, and soon enough disillusion sets in with the muted trumpet and sad wail of “Cry Me a River.” “I’m a Fool to Want You” is delivered with the drawn-out intensity of the late Shirley Horn, leading to the inevitable “Goodbye” and a brief reprise of the title tune that concludes, “you ought to give me wedding rings.”
The strings on The Book of Love are those of the City of Prague Symphony Orchestra, the same ensemble that gives the Manhattan Transfer’s latest outing, The Symphony Sessions, its name. It’s an appropriate setting for the foursome, since many of their performances these days are with local orchestras in the US and abroad.
This disc features a dozen songs the group has covered in the past and fattens them up with rich symphonic arrangements, adding new luster to old favorites. Their “Route 66” is unlike any version of this warhorse you’ve ever heard before, “That’s the Way It Goes” takes doo-wop orchestral and you can hear the bells chime as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” “The Offbeat of Avenues” (co-written by Bentyne) sizzles with crisp vocal interplay, and the group’s signature tune, “Birdland,” gets a new lease on life with the expansive fullness of the fiery horn section.
This is real “smooth jazz,” and I don’t mean that pejoratively—the smooth vocal harmonies of Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel, Alan Paul and Tim Hauser sound so fine wrapped in the smooth string swath of the Prague Symphony; makes you want to hear them with our own Virginia Symphony.
But you will get the chance to hear Cheryl Bentyne without her vocal playmates next spring—she’s already booked for the Port Folio Weekly Music Series of the Virginia Arts Festival.
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.