Like Prince, Manhattan Transfer is offering concert courses in musicology these days. Moving from the Ink Spots to Rufus Wainwright, from Count Basie to Weather Report, from bop-inspired vocalese to street-corner doo-wop and back again, the Grammy-winning vocal quartet compressed more than a half century of pop and jazz sounds into its sold-out performance at the Birchmere on Sunday night.
The group, which will celebrate its 33rd anniversary this fall, still models its four-part harmonies after a swing-era horn section and still celebrates the witty and harmonically challenging vocal innovations of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross with plenty of enthusiasm, charm and precision. In fact, in this rare club setting, Tim Hauser, Janis Siegel, Cheryl Bentyne and Alan Paul seemed even more engaged -- and engaging -- than usual, whether revisiting songs from the group's first recording (including a terrific version of "That Cat Is High") or previewing a couple of Wainwright tunes that will appear on an upcoming album.
Particularly enjoyable was Wainwright's ironic and bittersweet plaint "My Phone Is on Vibrate for You," which seemed tailor-made for the quartet's vocal blend and pop sensibilities. A colorful series of solo interludes created distinct moods, ranging from the purely nostalgic to the blues-powered. But the quartet always sounded bigger and better than the sum of its parts. That was especially true when the group unearthed the Count Basie gem "You Can Depend on Me" with the help of a quartet featuring guitarist Wayne Johnson, and when it celebrated the glory days of girl group harmony.
-- Mike Joyce