January 29, 2013

Music Syncing

Manhattan Transfer

Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure of attending a concert by Manhattan Transfer in Albany, NY, at a venue called The Egg. Manhattan Transfer is the quintessential jazz vocal group, and is celebrating an astounding 40 years in the music business. Their concert was superb in all regards. If you’re familiar with their music you know that their intricate vocal arrangements can only be accomplished by skilled singers who have taken the time and effort to not only memorize the arrangements and lyrics, but have learned how to blend their individual vocal tones and overall volume. We sat next to the soundman, who had very little to do, and I suspect he was told to “set it and forget it.” The vocal quartet plus the three-piece piano trio were totally in sync for the whole concert; there was nothing not to like. The set list included everything from their biggest hits (“Birdland” and “Route 66”) to jazz classics (“Killer Joe” and “Sidewinder”) Music from early in their career was featured, making it apparent that their musical memories could reach both back and forward. Perhaps the most impressive piece was not the one that drew the most enthusiastic applause. The group pulled off a vocal rendition of Miles Davis’ “Tutu,” a tribute to humanitarian and political activist Desmond Tutu. Cheryl Bentyne nailed the Miles Davis solo set to lyrics courtesy of master vocalese artist Jon Hendricks. Capturing Miles Davis vocally is no easy task. Her female counterpart, Janis Siegel, similarly impressed us with her uncanny rendition of a swing era muted trumpet solo and a spot-on performance of Ella Fitzgerald’s classic recording of “How High the Moon.” Interspersed with this vocal magic were impressive instrumental solos and audience repartee, including a few corny jokes about The Egg itself (“the yolk’s on you”).
The tech required for this stellar performance consisted of four hand-held microphones, two synthesizers, the acoustic instruments, and one spotlight. The rest was up to the performers. Their expertise explains their longevity. And after 40 years they are still road warriors, traveling in short order from coast to coast and abroad. On the way home we were speculating whether they could possibly be rich after all these years of performing. I had to remind myself that “rich jazz musician” is a classic oxymoron.

Beyonce at 2013 Inauguration
We were reflecting on the experience of witnessing a live performance and speculating about how many talented groups might have performed across the country on this particular Saturday night. I contrasted it with the news hype generated by one “performance” that lasted all of 2 minutes and 35 seconds. Of course I’m talking about the Beyonce lip-synching inauguration controversy.  In reading about the Beyonce incident I was sad to learn that Whitney Houston also lip synced her incredible “Star Spangled Banner” years ago at the Super Bowl. Even now this current controversy seems to have many variations. Beyonce sang live. She didn’t sing live. The band played but the voice was recorded. The whole thing was a recording. She sang live but with a prerecorded track. The most perplexing combination of observations was that she lip synced because there was no opportunity to rehearse with the Marine band. A widely circulated photo showed Beyonce in the recording studio with members of the band. They produced a recording without a rehearsal? My own opinion is that the rather intricate arrangement written for Beyonce was not nearly as straight ahead rhythmically as most of her pop music; that she was concerned about messing up the performance and thus her image. I am aggravated to think with all the technology in this day and age that a singer can’t stand next to the conductor by the Marine band, and have the band play and sing the song. Is this too complicated?
Jerry Lee Lewis
Most people know that lip-syncing is not a new phenomenon in the music business. It was standard practice on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” for years. As a fan of early rock ‘n’ roll, I note that Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the few artists who insisted on performing live during his performance on that show. Thank you Jerry, for not trying to lip sync to your own wild recordings.
Perhaps after a few more inaugurations and Super Bowls, the press will breathlessly write about a diva who had the temerity to sing live, as if she wasn’t concerned enough about the performance to have a recording created to which she could mime. Maybe what we should do is simply honor the practice. The Grammys have an endless list of award categories, a few more wouldn’t hurt. They could hand out a Grammy for “Best Lip Syncing Performance at a Political Event,” “Best Lip Syncing as a Group,” “Best Instrumental Syncing on YouTube,” and so on. Then all the nominees could prerecord their acceptance speeches, lip sync them, and prevent any image-damaging spontaneity. Beyonce could receive a Lifetime Achievement Lip Syncing Award, because one thing is apparent: she does a hell of job at it. 

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