Given her hectic schedule, one might not think Ms. Bentyne would be up for a long over-the-phone chat, but they’d be wrong. Cheryl was friendly, gracious, considerate, and so passionate about her music that even in the early AM, she energized me more than any amount of coffee I could consume. Perfectly underscoring our conversation was the sound of her husband (and producer) Corey Allen playing piano in the background.
JazzReview: We’ll talk about "Let Me Off Uptown" in a little bit, but I have to tell you I’ve been listening to the CD a lot and it’s really great.
Cheryl Bentyne: Thank you very much!
JazzReview: In fact, I’ve admired your work for quite some time now .
Cheryl Bentyne: Oh, thanks so much again! That’s so nice of you
JazzReview: I first saw you perform in the early 1990s at the club Le Café in Sherman Oaks (a suburb of Los Angeles).
Cheryl Bentyne: Oh, my God!! Boy, do I have some great memories from there!
JazzReview: It was a very intimate room. Just you with a piano and a string quartet
Cheryl Bentyne: Oh my God!!! My husband, whose playing piano in the other room right now, had written me a special piece for the string quartet.
JazzReview: I was there that night! I remember when he introduced the piece he had written for the string quartet, he said some really special things about you. My friend and I thought there was something going on between you and the piano player! You weren’t married at that time, were you?
Cheryl Bentyne: Nooooo! He was romancing me though big time! (Laughs)
JazzReview: I think if I remember correctly, I thought, "Wow, she’s not expecting this string quartet piece!"
Cheryl Bentyne: OH MY GOD!!! Wait ‘til I tell my husband! That is so cool that you were there!!
JazzReview: It was very cool to watch!! Now, looking at everything you’ve been doing lately, I think you must be the busiest woman in show business
Cheryl Bentyne: Busiest woman/mother /wife/ interior design freak. I’m totally addicted to these interior design shows. That’s my hobby on the side.
JazzReview: You record with the Manhattan Transfer you tour with them you have a new solo album from Telarc and late last year, you released a solo album in Japan
Cheryl Bentyne:Yes, well actually I have four records out there. I’ve recorded either four or five completely different records. The Transfer did an acapella Christmas record; we released the album "Vibrate" not long before that. I did [a solo album titled] "Waltz For Debby," which is on King Records (in Japan only) and then I did "Let Me Off Uptown." That’s all in one year! And now to slow down and do just one a year, Corey said, ‘You’re going too nuts!’ I said, ‘I know. We’re going to have to think of other things to do!’ (Laughs) Yeah, I’m pretty busy.
JazzReview: Will your association with King Records continue now that you’re recording original albums for Telarc?
Cheryl Bentyne: Well, yes and no. I mean they were so gracious about the departure. Telarc is a wonderful label - they’re international. I’m thrilled to be on it. And I think King Records and my dear friend, Susumu Morikawa, knew this was coming they really did jumpstart my second career to begin doing solo work again. I will continue the relationship and Corey continues to record for King Records as well. He has a CD out with an orchestra, a tribute to Bill Evans. It’ll go on I sincerely don’t want to lose that relationship because they are really just like family. And as I mentioned, the Transfer did an acapella Christmas album for King Records that came out in Japan last year. So the relationship continues. You just keep meeting people through other people. You know it’s such a small world that eventually it all comes around.
JazzReview: Will some of the albums you released in Japan be distributed here as "Talk Of The Town" was?
Cheryl Bentyne: That’s hard to say because I’m on Telarc now.
JazzReview: So right now the only way to get them is to order them as an import?
Cheryl Bentyne: Yeah and it’s so weird. We’ll do Transfer shows and someone will come up to me with a [CD of] "Waltz For Debby" or "The Lights Still Burn" and I’m so surprised they sent for it!
JazzReview: I actually own both of those CDs. "The Lights Still Burn" has a nice mixture of different types of songs.
Cheryl Bentyne: That’s one we’re very proud of. But I don’t know where we would market that in the U.S. because there are a couple of pop tunes on it it’s a little eclectic.
JazzReview: You have a version of Roberta Flack’s "Killing Me Softly With His Song" on that album. It’s such a famous song. Was there any particular reason you decided to record it?
Cheryl Bentyne: King Records suggested I do that. They said it’s a big song in Japan, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ And Corey came up with this great arrangement. You know, it’s one of those songs that you’re afraid to touch because it was done! Roberta Flack did it no one else could touch it! But so many years had passed and when I sang it, I thought, ‘This is a BEAUTIFUL song!’
JazzReview: Your first solo album, "Something Cool" came out in 1992, and then "Talk Of The Town" came out in the US in 2004. Why so long between your solo projects?
Cheryl Bentyne: Well, when "Something Cool" came out, the Transfer was on Columbia and then they agreed to do this record with me, and I had a very small window of time in which to have Mark Isham involved I really wanted him involved in this project. I said to Columbia, ‘This is going to be very special. I see this as a jazz record of the future.’ Unfortunately we were a little too early (laughs)! And then Columbia dropped the group, they dropped me and we let our manager go. So we had no manager no record label. When that happened, there was so much turmoil and it was such a transition for the Transfer, I just had to drop all of that for a while and concentrate fully on the group. Of course, I got married and had a child. I really needed the downtime to be home and be a mom and just go out when I really had something to say as a solo artist. I’m kind of a late bloomer I am! (Laughs).
JazzReview: Let’s talk about "Let Me Off Uptown." How did that come about? Telarc signed on to distribute "Talk Of The Town," which you originally recorded for King Records in Japan. When that album did well did they say, "Let’s do one more?"
Cheryl Bentyne: They actually said, "Let’s do three more!" So this is even better. In the record business these days that’s unheard of. Usually everything is one of ‘Do one and we’ll see how that goes.’ So I think that was a pleasant surprise to all of us. After all these years, I’m still a new kid.
JazzReview: Why did you choose to do the material of Anita O’Day?
Cheryl Bentyne: My manager, Bill Trout, who is very well known in the LA jazz scene and really all over the world, was actually a sax player in one of Anita’s road bands for a while. We were talking and he said, "I know what you should do! You should do the music of Anita O’Day. You have the right voice and her repertoire is vast." And I think Anita made the strongest, most significant mark in big band singers and then crossed over to become a great jazz singer. But she seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle when the big bands faded out, and then Ella just soared and Sarah and Carmen. And Anita was, unfortunately, not as well known as she should have been at that time.
JazzReview: What is it about Anita’s music that appeals to you?
Cheryl Bentyne: The more I looked into her repertoire when we were picking tunes, the more shocked I was! This woman, across the board, is probably the finest, most, melodic, expressive, articulate jazz singer I’ve ever heard. So underrated! And she’s still out there!
JazzReview: What did Bill Tout hear in your voice that made him think of Anita? You have a very beautiful voice and Anita has more of a saltier sound. Did he recognize a similarity in your phrasing?
Cheryl Bentyne: Yeah. I think what he heard is where I come from musically. I grew up singing with my dad’s swing band. Bill knew where I came from and I think that’s exactly it. I think it’s my swing background and just her repertoire I already knew it! The other thing is I did most of the songs in her key. We just started playing them and I said that’s where I should be doing the song. Almost ninety percent of the tunes on "Let Me Off Uptown" are in the original key. The deeper we got into it you know, it just worked.
JazzReview: How has Anita’s style and phrasing influenced you?
Cheryl Bentyne: I think her biggest influence on me, and hopefully a lot of other singers, is ‘where is the groove?’ Lyrically, fine, but she’s a groove singer. I mean she really has a drummer’s sensibility. It’s all about being in the pocket and I love that. In the Transfer I’m hardest on drummers because if they can’t swing (laughs) ! We do so many different styles that there is really a wide palette for a drummer. So I’ve been hard on drummers in the past. When we get to the song "Corner Pocket," if they’re not swingin’ it, I go insane! I just want to stop in the middle of the song. It’s the simplest, yet it’s the most exacting style of music. If it’s not swinging, people know something’s not right. They won’t be able to put their finger on it exactly, but they’ll know.
JazzReview: You prepared for the recording of "Let Me Off Uptown" by listening to all of Anita albums. After finishing that enormous task, what was the biggest thing you walked away with?
Cheryl Bentyne: After listening to her for weeks and weeks and weeks, I felt she gave me a lot of freedom. She gave me the permission to have fun with the songs and not worry about the phrasing. And you know something else I noticed about Anita is that when you listen to her recordings, you can always hear her smiling.
JazzReview: That’s funny that you said that because that is something I’ve noticed when listening to you.
Cheryl Bentyne: Oh! I’m thrilled you hear that because I was! Anita really had a spark and she still does and she’s getting up there! She just has an internal spark that was always there no matter what she did. I kept hearing that, going, ‘What is that? There’s something there.’ And then I said, ‘Oh my gosh! I can HEAR her smiling!’ And that is really DEEP (Heartfelt laughter)!
JazzReview: Have you ever met Anita?
Cheryl Bentyne: The Transfer shared the stage with her years ago at Lincoln Center. She did a set and then we did a set. We just hung around for her sound check and said hello and she was preoccupied with her band, so that was about it. Then just a couple of weeks ago, I met her over the phone. I did a radio show in New York and she called in and she said, "You are GOOD, girl!"
JazzReview: Now, that’s the ultimate compliment! I’m glad Anita loved the album.
Cheryl Bentyne: Yeah you and me both! (laughs)
JazzReview: Was she aware that you were doing an album of her music before she called in on the radio?
Cheryl Bentyne: We sent her a CD and we were hoping we would hear from her. We weren’t hearing anything and I was getting a little nervous! Finally, I heard that she did like it and that she had been traveling a bit. So now we’re going to try and get together and sing together. And you know something? If that happens, I will loose my mind!! (Laughs).
JazzReview: If it does happen please do it on the west coast so I can come to the show! Now, was there any particular song in her repertoire that you thought you shouldn’t touch?
Cheryl Bentyne: Technically, they were just a breeze. This is just what I do. It’s the type of music I live and breath. I think I picked a couple of tunes that weren’t necessarily her big hits and my manager said, ‘I don’t know.’ But you know what? [These songs] are a cross-section of all the styles she did. I picked one called "It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream." That one seemed to be a throw away on one of her albums. It’s funny, it’s like the band was just rushing through it to either get to lunch or get out of the studio. They did it at a very awkward medium-fast tempo. Something was not right in the studio that day with them I think (laughs). I listened to the song and we took it down to where it should sit as a beautiful ballad. And it’s a Duke Ellington song I hadn’t heard before! So anytime I find a Duke Ellington song that has lyrics and that I don’t know, I jump on it! And "Whisper Not" is just a great jazz groove and I loved it when I heard her do it. Anita just speaks to me. I felt I had so much to choose from.
JazzReview: One of my favorite tunes on the CD, is "Waiter, Make Mine Blues." Was there any particular reason you chose that song to record?
Cheryl Bentyne: I put "Waiter, Make Mine Blues" as a closer because she wrote it. And when I looked through all her music, she didn’t write very much that’s the only one really that I noticed. I was attracted to the title first of all and listened to it, and then I saw she’d written it and I said, 'I've got to do it! It’s a great song!'
JazzReview: "Little Girl Blue" is on "Let Me Off Uptown" and your album, "The Lights Still Burn." Why did you decide to record it again?
Cheryl Bentyne: I was just still so attached to it and we honestly had room for one more tune. You have to have a certain amount of minutes and we were short a bit. Anita had recorded it and it was Bill’s idea to do that. And "Tea For Two" was a last minute addition too! I was kind of nervous because we didn’t really rehearse it and we needed two more tunes! We thought we had enough. I wasn’t going to put it on and then Bill [Trout] said, "Hey, she closed her shows with this. You’ve got to do it." I said, ‘I can’t quote her through the song, I’m just going to have to improvise it.’ And he said, "Do you think she would have wanted it any other way? She did it different every night." So I just blew through it. I quoted her a few times melodically.
JazzReview: You have some big band charts on this album. Before you joined Manhattan Transfer, you were a member of the big band swing outfit, The New Deal Rhythm Band. Did doing these big band tunes on "Uptown" remind you of your days with that group?
Cheryl Bentyne: Yes! We did "Drum Boogie," which I didn’t do on this record, but that was a Gene-Krupa/Anita O’Day tune. And we did "Bolero at The Savoy" which was also an Anita song. So when I was working with New Deal, I was listening to a lot of Anita back then too.
JazzReview: You’ve been doing this type of music all your life. How has your voiced changed over the years?
Cheryl Bentyne: I think it comes from a place of experience now. I’m confident with whatever comes out of my mouth. When I was younger, I had confidence, but I didn’t have the control. I think I rehearse less now. For me, being older now and more experienced and having sung now for about 35 years or so, I know what to expect from my voice. So rather than over-rehearse, I don’t want to loose that edge that fine edge that you should have in a song, I’ll do two takes. I’m a one/two take singer on this whole record. I now have an experienced voice that will just go where I want it to go and not have to think about it.
JazzReview: Are you ever surprised where it does go?
Cheryl Bentyne: (Pauses to think) Technically I’m not, emotionally I am. Emotionally I’m pleasantly surprised because I’m depending on it to touch the place that the song needs to go for the listener, as well as for me. If I can listen over and over to something that I’ve recorded and still get a good feeling, I know I did the right thing for the song.
JazzReview: Your husband has produced all of your solo albums and he has also worked with the Transfer. Is it difficult working with someone you’re so close to?
Cheryl Bentyne: Sure. It can get a little intense. But for some reason, there’s never really been a marital battle at all. We get in the studio and he’s so professional and he has a great relationship with the musicians. There may have been one episode in all the records we’ve done together. We just kind of went our separate directions for about ten minutes. But you have to keep it professional. Anybody who comes into our environment knowing that we’re married, they’re probably waiting for some big blow up, but we’re so excited to be doing the music that we want to keep that environment as healthy and fun as we can and we work with crazy musicians who are a hoot!
JazzReview: You’ve been a member of "The Manhattan Transfer" since 1979 that’s twenty-six years. Having worked with three other singers for so long, have you ever found yourselves taking on the other’s phrasing or style?
Cheryl Bentyne: Vocally, no we don’t meld over into each other. Sometimes, Janis [Siegel] and I will match our vibratos on something, which is really cool. I think the key to this group is the four really individual sounding voices. So there is no way we can sound alike. Janis has a real husky round belting alto voice a dramatic soprano/alto voice. I can get up real high and thin. I have a very thin voice in the group, so I always need my microphone a little louder because I don’t sing as hard and as loud as the rest of them. Alan [Paul] is a tenor/bass. He and Tim are now switching roles a bit. And Tim [Hauser] when he sings solo is a beautiful tenor. He’s got a mid-range not a high voice but he’s got a tenor range voice. When we open our mouths we know what each other is going to be sounding like. The combination of those four voices and the timber that we create makes our sound.
JazzReview: What have you learned from your partners in MT and what have they learned from you?
Cheryl Bentyne: Oh, my God I’ve learned just volumes. Music aside, I’ve learned how to be in a group mentality. I grew up as an only child and did things my own way. I would do pretty much what I wanted to do I had my point of view and I would do it. I walked into this ensemble of people and all of a sudden I had two brothers and a sister two fathers and a mother two sons and a daughter. You have all these various wild mind-bending combinations of people in your life that really taught me, and continue to teach me, how to interact with other people in the world: How to be a married woman; How to compromise your thoughts and do it in a way that you know will be helpful for the bigger picture. The learning experience goes far beyond music. The music is obvious I wasn’t into bebop at all until I met my group.
JazzReview: After all these years with The Manhattan Transfer, are you surprised by the fact that you are now at the beginning a successful solo career?
Cheryl Bentyne: Well, when you get older, all of a sudden you see this path ahead of you and you go, 'Oh that’s my road.' When you’re young, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees. You have to stumble and fall and take a few meaningless detours. When you get older you start to see much clearer who you are and what you do best. Unfortunately, it usually takes a half a lifetime to figure out! (Laughs) So this is my path. Everything fell into place.