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Interview: Jane Monheit, Blame It On The Bossa Nova

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Song selection can make or break an artist, especially in the world of jazz. Stick too much to the standards and you’ll risk being seen as a hopeless traditionalist (not to mention comparisons to all the greats who’ve already recorded those songs). Venture into “jazzing-up” more contemporary numbers and purists may dismiss you for having a piano-bar repertoire (or, even worse, compare you to Celine Dion).

Jane Monheit’s run into both problems in her short career. Ever since she first burst on the scene, placing as first runner-up at the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute vocal competition (while still a student at the Manhattan School of Music), she’s somehow been the It Girl of Jazz — and therefore the girl everyone else wanted to beat. (I swear, if I read another article comparing her to Diana Krall I will throw up – are there no other women singing jazz these days?)

I strongly suspect that Monheit's ripe, sultry good looks (call it the Babe Factor) have only made it worse. And because her natural vocal quality – a shimmering, supple sweetness – makes her accessible to a wider audience, she’s had to contend with that dirty word: Crossover.

There’s no question, though, that Monheit’s dulcet tones are perfectly suited to the material she’s chosen for her new CD Surrender. “I don’t tend to go out looking for songs,” Jane Monheit says. “But when a song comes to you, you know this is it — that you have to sing it.

“This album definitely has more of a concept," she adds. “It’s all ballads and bossa nova, dating all the way back to the 1950s. A lot of them have been in my live show for a while, and I’ve been wanting to record them. It all just came together.”

Most of the line-up on the album are her regular touring band – pianist Michael Kanan, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Orlando Le Fleming, saxophonist Ari Ambrose, and drummer Rick Montalbano (who’s also her husband) – supplemented by a platoon of strings to add romantic lushness. (I'm not a huge fan of lavish orchestrations like this, but I guess if you’re going to record a track like “Moon River,” not having strings is probably against the law in some states.) And with the focus on Brazilian or Brazilian-influenced numbers, it was also essential to bring in veteran Latin percussionist Paulinho Da Costa to crank the tropical humidity up a notch.

When Monheit speaks about it all “coming together,” what she seems most excited about is that on Surrender she got a chance to work with legendary Latin musicians like Ivan Lins (on “Rio De Maio”) and Sergio Mendes (on “So Many Stars”). “I’d actually recorded that song before [on Come Dream With Me],” Monheit explains, “but this time Sergio produced it, which was such a thrill. I just came into his studio in Malibu and did my vocal track, the rest was all his.”

With the wonders of modern recording technology, Ivan Lins was able to add his hushed, honeyed vocals to “Rio De Maio” (one of his own compositions) without leaving Rio De Janeiro; similarly, from Brussels, Toots Theilemans laid down a plangent harmonica track to be inserted into the evocative “Caminhos Cruzados.”

It seems an aptly-named album — Surrender — as if Monheit is hereby surrendering to her own predilection for Latin jazz, art songs, and vintage pop, rather than subscribing to the strict jazz canon. The juxtaposition of the Brazilian tracks with retro ballads was a cunning strategy. I particularly like the arrangement on Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” – who knew there was a languid bossa nova hiding inside that Motown song?

In this context, it’s a bit startling not to hear a Latin beat on the title track, “Surrender” (written by Monheit’s old vocal coach Peter Eldridge), but Monheit draws plenty of emotional heat out of this cabaret-like piece about a wife welcoming her man home at the end of a hectic workday. (Bring on the lacy black teddy and martini shaker.) Monheit also reinvents the Johnny Mandel classic "A Time For Love," taking a delicate, almost breathless approach that breathes new life into it.   

“I think it’s important, since I don’t write myself, that each song reflects some sort of life experience,” Monheit muses. Monheit, by the way, has yet to turn thirty — that "life experience" element has years to deepen further. She hasn't yet got the world-weary authority of a Peggy Lee in her voice, but hopefully it will come. For now, fervour and  sexiness will have to do.

“When I was younger it was all about the instrument — what can I do, what can I prove. But now I just try to relax, to be as natural and as honest as I can. What’s more important to me now is phrasing and trying to express what’s in the lyrics of a song” — even if she's singing in Portuguese, as she does on four tracks of Surrender.

Still, the technique is there, instinctive where it once was conscious, and Monheit is in control of many switches to turn on and off – an expressive breathiness, a liquid warble, a caressing swoop, a crescendoing sustain.

When you can deliver the sort of vocal passion Jane Monheit can, what a smart move it is to home in on songs that demand nothing less.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Kandie Webster

    Unfortunately, when someone gets to the caliber of Jane Monheit’s career in the vein that she is in, it is inevitable that they will be compared to Diana Krall. I have read a couple of reviews from the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival comparing Jane to Roberta Gabarini, but that Jane puts too much inflection in her singing. Roberta is more ‘pure.’ Roberta was the runner up ahead of Jane at that Thelonious Monk competition. The winner has since passed away. I really do not know. Also, unfortunately, the “Babe Factor” has been challenged by her extra weight gain. My 82 year old jazz “parents” were shocked to see her with the extra weight. At her young age, it was quite a shock to see that happen. Photos of her from Lionel show her weight going down, and I hope that is true for the good of her health — in the business she is in especially — so she does not run herself ragged too easily. I also noticed that the cover of this CD is nothing compared to her first CD’s. Forget ‘Babe factor” — try sex kitten on those early CD’s. They are borderline offensive. I do not even like the way Diana Krall markets herself in so-called ‘sultry’ poses. I avoided her music because of the ‘look’ she portrayed and the popularity of her music. I avoid popular music. But I was turned onto Diana’s recordings with Russell Malone on them. She is now my absolute favorite singer, but I still do not like looking at her CD covers. And the true jazz DIVA who is now getting her dues, is Dianne Reeves. FOUR Grammys!!! And sold out concerts all over the world. And she is almost 50 (or already there). Beautiful woman too!

  • Kandie Webster

    I must correct myself…In the 1998 Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition, Jane was in second place, and Roberta placed third. Teri Thornton, at age 64, won that year while undergoing treatment for cancer. Teri sadly passed away in May 2000. And another fact from that competition, Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves were among the judges that year.

  • http://www.thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    Thanks for filling in those details, Kandie. True, this CD’s cover is a little more restrained than ehr previous ones, but the full red lips, the smoldering gaze through a half-veil, the low-cut tops…it still reads BABE, even though I don’t think she needs that in order to sell records. But whatever; it’s all marketing, isn’t it? If Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan were young singers today, who knows how their images would have been “groomed”?

    The question of inflection V. purity is a matter of taste, I guess. Jane does err on the side of inflection often. But given the clear timbre of her voice, I think it’s not a bad choice.

  • divaqueen

    Now this pisses me off. First of all, Jane is naturally a big boned girl. This is not acceptable in our society. Everyone has to be rail thin especially women. Also,Jane has had baby! HELLO! Jane is a gorgeous beautiful woman and an amazing talent. I don’t care how heavy she is. Her stage presence is capitivating. I believe I am her biggest fan. But everyone comes in all shapes and sizes. As we age, we lose our bodies and looks anyway. Jane rocks! and probably laughs all the way to the bank. As a performer myself, it is also about performing and giving your audience a wonderful experience. Not about what you weigh.

    Divaqueen