Jazz singer Jane Monheit loves to sing like Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bernadette Peters, but still likes to belt out “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on karaoke nights.
“Music should be fun,” Monheit explains. “You have to find fun in what you do and not take yourself too seriously.”
Monheit continues to find joy in her critically acclaimed career, which began at age 20 when she was the first runner-up in the 1998 Theolonius Monk Institute vocal competition. Since then she has recorded several successful jazz-pop albums, including 2007's major label debut Surrender. Her latest release, The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me, shows her diverse tastes in music, ranging from jazz to Brazilian to rock. Her supple voice can smoothly adapt to all of these genres, making her a distinctive vocalist in today’s jazz scene.
Her voice has developed since working with New York Voices member Peter Eldridge, who served as her first and only vocal coach. By 2000 she released her debut, Never Never Land, which received great critical acclaim (including the Jazz Journalist Association’s award for Best Debut). The album became a fixture on the Billboard Jazz charts for over a year, and critics hailed her as the “next big thing” in jazz. Her follow-up, Come Dream with Me, reached the top of the jazz charts and earned a Grammy nomination. Another Grammy nomination followed with 2003’s In the Sun, and her 2007 album Surrender debuted at number one on the Billboard Jazz charts.
Reflecting on her nine-year career, she admits that she sounds like “an innocent baby” on her older recordings. On subsequent releases such as Come Dream with Me and 2004’s Taking A Chance on Love, she began showing greater diversity in music choices; on the former CD, she recorded songs such as Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland” and Bread’s 70s hit “If.” By Surrender she fully delved into Brazilian music, recording with carioca legend Ivan Lins and Brasil ’66 founder Sergio Mendes.
“I was scared working with him,” she recalls, “He was very quiet. I was in awe.” On that same record, however, she covered Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” showing her love of R&B and contemporary music. “I’m a jazz singer, but I love musical theater, vocal divas, and Brazilian music. But jazz is at the center of everything I do,” says Monheit.
The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me continues that tradition of musical diversity, including covers of Corinne Bailey Rae, Fiona Apple, Paul Simon, and Bonnie Raitt. She chose Apple’s “Slow Like Honey” because it represents Monheit’s “angsty college days,” while Rae’s “Like A Star” sounds “almost Brazilian,” which fits in well with her love of Brazilian music. The wide-ranging selection of songs on her latest CD represents her broad influences. While she admires legends of jazz and pop such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, and Keely Smith, just to name a few — she also lists current singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Wonder, Norah Jones, and John Mayer.
While Monheit enjoys recording, she never tires of singing live. “What we do onstage matters most,” she states, “Before this record we sat down and thought about which songs really work live.” She adds that she just appreciates having someone listen to what she does, but she particularly loves when little kids come to her shows. “I love when a little girl will say that she wants to be a jazz singer when she grows up,” says Monheit. “We just love to play live.”
Monheit’s Surrender centered on romance and sultry Brazilian sounds, but the new album reflects changes in her life: turning 30 and having a baby with her husband, drummer Rick Montalbano. Since becoming an adult, Monheit felt confident in tackling songs such as June Christy’s world-weary “Something Cool.” “I wouldn’t want to be that girl in the song, but she is a great character. It was fun to be an actress,” she explains.
Following a tradition of recording children’s songs such as “Never Never Land” and “Pure Imagination,” Monheit covers the Muppet Movie classic “Rainbow Connection,” from which the album gets its title. “It’s my son’s favorite song,” she says. “I sing it to him every night.” Because of the sentimentality surrounding the song, she can “sing naturally, which is the way jazz should be.”
For all of her jazz credentials, fans may be surprised at what she and her husband listen to in the car: metal bands such as Motley Crue and Guns ‘n Roses. “I’m a hair metal band groupie,” she jokes. She also admits to dancing in her house to 80s singers like Irene Cara (“Imagining the water pouring over me like in Flashdance”) and working out to Britney Spears (“’Toxic’ is the best song to work out on the treadmill to!”). Overall, Monheit maintains, music is “about fun, about escaping and having a good time.”
Future plans include an upcoming world tour to support The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me, and, of course, recording music. She adds that her dream is to co-produce her albums with her husband. “Rick may actually prefer producing to playing drums,” she says.
Although life has become more chaotic with a baby in the house, Monheit says her life today is “lots more fun.” Perhaps her life today is best represented by Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky to Be Me,” one of Monheit’s favorite tracks from The Lovers, The Dreamers, and Me: “There's no other girl I’d rather be/I could laugh out loud, I’m so lucky to be me.”