I recently experienced the magic that is The Manhattan Transfer. A wonderful concert that took me and the adoring audience, at the sold-out Flato Markham Theatre, on a trip back through five decades of outstanding achievement in music, vocalese, and four-part closed harmony.
During the concert, I learned that the musical director for most of those years, since 1979, has been the same person. Yaron Gershovsky has been the man behind the hits, and the many Grammy awards and nominations. Yaron is the musical director pianist, keyboardist, composer, and arranger, a maestro who wears many hats.
After the show I met Yaron and asked him if he would be interested in interviewing for That Canadian Magazine, he agreed, and here is that interview.
TCM: Not so very long ago we all went through an unprecedented time, for our generation, at least. The recent pandemic had many re-examining their lives, values, and priorities. How was that period for you, Yaron? Did you have any epiphanies or life-altering moments?
Yaron: When COVID happened, I was like every other musician, pretty much at home. No shows, no work. I decided to use that time to be as productive and creative as I could.
I practiced the piano and wrote a lot. I also put out — on social media many videos of collaborations I have done with fellow artists, singers, and instrumentalists, as well as videos of piano solos.
As a result, I released one double CD of collaborations and one single CD of piano solos that I have posted. All these videos can be found on my YouTube channel, and the CDs can be found on all streaming outlets.
I have also released a studio album in January of 2022. That CD was partially recorded during COVID by remote. Parts of that CD, entitled Transitions were recorded in the studio, in March 2021. The first studio session I have had since COVID started.
TCM: Yaron, you have some great jazz chops, I have been listening to your playing and compositions on your recent album Transitions. A wonderful recording, mostly instrumental songs but with a few of the songs adding vocals by Aubrey Johnson.
I have noticed in your piano playing some classical sensibilities. Can you tell us a little about your musical upbringing?
Yaron: I started to play the piano at the age of 6. Self-taught then, but I started piano lessons shortly thereafter. I studied classical piano from the age of 6 through to the age of 14, when I started to play jazz as well.
It’s fair to say that I have a strong classical background, and I am always thankful for those early classical piano lessons. Those lessons taught me a lot about technique and “correct” playing. Beyond technique — it’s all coming from the heart, as we all know.
TCM: Another keyboard player, pianist, band leader, and arranger, Duke Ellington, has a saying that I appreciate. “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life”.
Speaking of big bands, and great band leaders, do you have an association with the Count Basie Big Band?
Yaron: I was incredibly lucky to record with the Count Basie Orchestra. A short time after Count Basie passed away, The Manhattan Transfer recorded two songs with them for their Vocalese album, “Blee Blop Blues” and “Rambo.”
It was a day I will never forget. The rhythm section was made up of: Freddie Green on guitar, Ray Brown on bass and Grady Tate on drums — can’t get any better than that — this experience was truly incredible.
TCM: The 1985 release Vocalese garnered The Manhattan Transfer 12 Grammy Award nominations, placing it second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the most nominated individual album. Jon Hendricks, one of the greats of the Vocalese style, composed all the lyrics for this album.
Yaron: Grammy Awards were won for “Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group” and “Best Vocal Arrangements for Voices” for Cheryl Bentyne and Bobby McFerrin’s arrangement of “Another Night in Tunisia.”
TCM: You have been involved with great music over the course of your career. I understand you have even been involved with hit Broadway shows. Two of my favorite shows that I saw on Broadway were Smoky Joe’s Cafe and Swing.
Who do you attribute to having taught you the most or the most important thing in music and/or life?
Yaron: Interesting you mention these two shows. I was the musical director for Smokey Joe’s Cafe in the early stages of that show, and I wrote vocal arrangements for Swing. I also wrote the vocal arrangements for the show City of Angels.
TCM: City of Angels opened on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre on December 11, 1989. The show won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Yaron: The most important things in life I can surely attribute to my parents who instilled in me humility and respect for my fellow human beings. The importance of education, and the need to be a productive and contributing person.
There are always teachers who open doors of knowledge — like Madame Shalloff with whom I studied piano in Boston, and Herb Pomeroy, with whom I studied at Berklee College of Music.
TCM: Now that a period of your life has come to an end after nearly five decades with The Manhattan Transfer, what comes next?
Yaron: I want to continue writing and playing. And, I have just completed a new CD with Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer, featuring the music of Cy Coleman, called The Colors of My Life. It’s going to be released on the Club 44 record label in early 2024. We are planning on touring and performing that music as well.
I am also working on a few other projects, and planning on releasing another CD. I am looking forward to a new chapter in my life and in my musical career.
TCM: Thank you very much, Yaron, for taking the time to participate in our interview and giving us some insight into making the music. All the best in your future endeavors. Take good care, be well, and keep on going.
Yaron: Thanks again for the opportunity. And all the best to you and your readers.