You wouldn’t hear a Hebrew accent among the four velvety voices that blend together to create the sound of Manhattan Transfer. But that’s only because the Israeli influence on the legendary American vocal group comes from behind the upright piano, where Tel Aviv-born and bred Yaron Gershovsky has reigned as musical director since 1979.
That was soon after the bucking-thetrend style of jazz harmonies and pop appeal thrust the New York-based quartet into international stardom with the album Extensions, featuring massive eclectic hits like the Grammy-winning cover of Weather Report’s “Birdland” and a unique pastiche called “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone,” a tribute the TV series created by Rod Serling.
The group, consisting of Tim Hauser, Cheryl Bentyne, Janis Siegel and Alan Paul, needed a steady band for the endless stream of concert requests they were receiving.
And the then-29-year-old Gershovsky was already considered the go-to pianist in New York, a few short years after leaving Israel to study at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston.
“After I graduated from Berklee, I moved to New York and began to play jazz with as many people as possible,” said the affable 64-year-old Gershovsky on the phone last week from his home in Queens. That included playing on Atlantis, Wayne Shorter’s first album after Weather Report broke up, and working with luminaries like Stan Getz, Pharaoh Sanders and the Count Basie Orchestra.
But when Hauser offered him the chance to lead Manhattan Transfer’s musical lineup, Gershovsky couldn’t refuse, and he’s be in charge of the group’s arrangements and leading the band ever since, through a dozen or so albums and countless tours that have cemented the group’s status as one of the world’s most innovative jazz/ pop vocal combos.
For Gershovsky, being Manhattan Transfer’s pianist and musical director represented the realization of a vision he strived for ever since taking up the classical piano as a pre-teen to emulate his older brother Tzvi.
By the time he turned 14, Gershovsky had switched to jazz, and after completing his service in the IDF in 1971, he plunged head first into music. And he surfaced in the winner’s circle. Within two years, he had become an indispensable member of the music community in Tel Aviv, writing and arranging music for the Hebrew Song Festival, accompanying artists like Shlomo Artzi, acting as musical director of the popular TV show Mifghash Haomanim with Ehud Manor, Yossi Banai’s show Partzuf shel Tzoani, and Nikui Rosh, as well as writing its theme song, “Az Hamatzav Nochachi.”
“It all happened so fast, and I was thrilled. But I decided to leave it all and go study at Berklee because I wanted to expand my musical education,” said Gershovsky.
“It was risky, but in my mindset, I wanted to be more worthy of my successes.
And maybe I was being naïve or just optimistic, but I always thought I could come back to Israel afterwards and reclaim my place and continue my career where it had left off.”
However, once he moved to New York after completing his studies, one opportunity led to another. And almost 40 years later, Gershovsky still hasn’t made the leap back to Israel, although he returns frequently, including his fourth visit with Manhattan Transfer next week when the group perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on Monday night.
“Life has a funny way of doing that,” he said. “I had always planned to go back to Israel but all of a sudden, I found myself to be the father of three beautiful daughters, and now the grandfather of five beautiful grandchildren. The years go by and here I am talking about my grandchildren. You never know what to expect, and it’s been an amazing journey that I count my blessings for.”
Gershovsky’s position with Manhattan Transfer enables him to indulge his own musical pursuits during the band’s downtime.
And they are plentiful.
He was the vocal arranger for Broadway musicals City of Angels, Song of Singapore and Swing and was the original musical director of Smoky Joe’s Café.
“I’m now performing in Phantom of the Opera and I did Les Miz. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do other things when the group isn’t touring or recording,” said Gershovsky, adding that arranging the musical scores for Manhattan Transfer remains one of his primary joys.
“It’s a creative process that’s a two-way street. Many times it’s based on interaction and exchange of ideas between the whole group, and it’s very dynamic,” he said.
“However, when it comes to performing the old hits, there’s a band consensus that they should remain the same as the originally recorded versions.”
“People expect to hear ‘Java Jive’ or ‘Birdland’ the way they know and love it, so we honor that,” said Gershovsky. “But I still get butterflies each time before I go onstage even though I’m performing the same songs. And I hope I feel that way for the rest of my life. You never want to get too relaxed when you perform. We keep it fresh by reacting to the energy of the audience and responding to the feedback.”
Gershovky and his musical colleagues – Cliff Almond on drums and Boris Kozlov on bass – are so musically driven that the night after the Manhattan Transfer show next week, they’re going to perform as a trio as the guest of the jazz ensemble Cats for Hire at Beit Hayotzer at the Tel Aviv port.
Even before Tuesday’s cease-fire was announced marking yet another interval in the two-month long war with Hamas, Gershovsky said that there was no discussion among anyone in the Manhattan Transfer organization about canceling or postponing the scheduled shows.
“Everything’s a go – it didn’t even enter our minds,” he said. “This is going to be our fourth visit to Israel. The first was in 1984 when we played at Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem and mayor Teddy Kollek came to see us.”
“Everyone is looking forward to coming back and understands what is happening in the country. I wouldn’t expect to make anyone think other than what they think, just as I look at the situation through my own eyes. I was 16 during the Six Day War and 23 during the Yom Kippur War. We grew up like this, and it’s part of our lives.
We can only hope and pray that one day it’s going to be better.”
Until then, there’s always that epic version of “Birdland” to look forward to.