New York City jazz outfit Onyx Collective have unveiled a starry-eyed take on the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart classic, “Manhattan,” which will appear on their tribute to the Rodgers and Hart/Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, Manhattan Special, out Friday, April 24th, via TMWRK Records.
A New York City anthem since it arrived in 1925, “Manhattan” has been performed by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett to the Supremes and Rod Stewart and Bette Midler. On their version, Onyx Collective fold the song’s vintage Jazz Age charm into a contemporary soundscape as twinkling keys and a strolling saxophone venture through the city alongside group leader Isaiah Barr’s effects-drenched vocals.
Barr, a New York City native, tells Rolling Stone that Onyx Collective wanted to “paint a dreamy kind of surrealist portrait of the fantastical side of Manhattan” with its take on the tune. “All the references in the song are still things we romanticize about the city, so it seemed like a perfect soundtrack to a New York love story,” he says. “We tried to create an atmosphere around the feeling you have on a perfect New York day in Soho or Central Park… a kind of grandiose delusional sense of reality we have as New Yorkers.”
While “Manhattan” is purely an Onyx Collective effort, most of Manhattan Special will feature guest vocalists, such as Nick Hakim singing “My Funny Valentine,” Ian Isiah singing “Blue Moon” and Kelsey Lu singing “Spring Is Here” and “Where or When.”
Barr says the tracklist was compiled by pouring over the Rodgers and Hart/Rodgers and Hammerstein discography and choosing songs that not only stood out as favorites but ones that complemented each other and would allow for different musical styles.
Onyx Collective listened to and studied past arrangements for inspiration — Barr specifically cited 1967’s The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart — but also just followed their musical instincts in the studio.
“The goal was to create an ambiance with the arrangements that highlighted the mood of the melody or the emotion of the lyrics,” Barr says. “Some of the arrangements came alive from our imaginations and thinking in a cinematic lens.”
The arrival of Manhattan Special coincides with the 100th anniversary of Rodgers and Hart’s songwriting partnership, which dates back to the 1920 premiere of their first musical, Fly With Me. But it’s also a tribute to a songbook steeped in the history of New York City that happens to arrive at a moment of great crisis for the city now that it’s the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Although Onyx Collective obviously couldn’t have predicted this scenario while making Manhattan Special, Barr says, “We definitely feel this album is an homage to great songwriting, but it’s also an homage to classic New York, different from our versions of this narrative from the past. I think all the songs have a certain time-capsule element; each song brings me to a specific atmosphere, an escape into a dreamy sub-world of life in New York, that we cherish and love. It’s all pretty emotional and heartfelt, which is something I think is helpful in these trying times.”
Manhattan Special Tracklist
1. “Spring Is Here” (Ft. Kesley Lu)
3. “My Funny Valentine” (Ft. Nick Hakim)
4. “Miss Jones” (Ft. Julian Soto)
5. “My Favorite Things”
6. “Glad to Be Unhappy” (Ft. Duendita)
7. “Where or When” (Ft. Kelsey Lu)
8. “Getting to Know You” (Ft. Okay Kaya and Julian Soto)
9. “Falling in Love” (Ft. Roy Nathanson)
10. “Blue Moon” (Ft. Ian Isiah)