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.