By Kat Bein
By Shea Serrano
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Jacob Katel
By Michael E. Miller
If there were a Grammy for Most Urbane American International Vocalist, it would go to Jane Monheit. The New Yorker could be the stateside soul sister of Germany's Ute Lemper, minus the Kurt Weill repertoire. Monheit, though, does have the necessary grit to sing Weill or any other dramatic songs. Her personal style already possesses the dark edges of a Diamanda Gals and the bohemian-punk swagger to ruffle the feathers of many a Greenwich Villager.
Raised in Oakdale, New York (in Long Island's Suffolk County), Monheit began singing professionally while still in high school. Comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald came as early as 1999, around the time she completed a course of vocal studies with Peter Eldridge at the Manhattan School of Music. Shortly thereafter, she nabbed a first runnerup prize at the Thelonious Monk Institute vocal competition. With stamps of approval from the Fitzgerald and Monk camps, Monheit sealed her leadership among young jazz singers. She had just turned 22.
Her momentum kept building with the 2000 release of her commercially successful indie debut album. Never Never Land caught the attention of Sony Music, and Monheit eventually signed with the label in 2004, released Taking a Chance on Me and her first holiday album, The Season. Both debuted at number one on the Billboard Traditional Jazz chart, and both received Grammy nominations.
As Monheit took on more Broadway tunes and other popular songs, her voice developed a Barbra Streisand-like richness, but maintained the nimbleness of Fitzgerald. Not a bad combination: Those years yielded intriguing versions of ultrastandards like "Over the Rainbow," "Love Me or Leave Me," and "Embraceable You."
On her latest release, Surrender, she shows further versatility through phrasing that's as sassy as it is tender. The opening track, "If You Went Away," showcases Monheit's voice in all of the above-mentioned modes. An exciting newer development is her Lemperesque metropolitan boldness on songs like the title tune --written by her former teacher Eldridge -- and Bergman/Caymmi/Motta's "Like a Lover." Here and on several other songs we're treated to her velvety, voluptuous lower register. It's evident she has benefited from five years of steady touring and recording; her bearing is relaxed while her diction remains precise and engaging.
With the aid of arranger/conductor/producer Jorge Calandrelli's lush orchestrations, Monheit leads us through gems by Tom Jobim and Johnny Mandel, as well as the album's centerpiece, Mancini/Mercer's "Moon River." Henry Mancini's spirit can be felt on Surrender,as can that of Jobim and Brasil 66.
The latter is not surprising, considering that Sergio Mendes is among Monheit's superstar fans; he even appears on the album. His song "So Many Stars" is the canvas for a casually elegant duet with Monheit, and there's great chemistry between them. Mendes sounds comfortable and wise, Monheit thrilled and inspired. Elsewhere she gives a loungy, bossa nova take on Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed." The often-dismissed classic is a fine choice for her; she delivers a purely delicious opening line and soulfully sung chorus.
Her marketing team has been on the beam, too, presenting Monheit on the album cover in a black veil and bright red lipstick, looking slightly wicked. It's a refreshing change in a genre obsessed with Norah Jones and her silky-soft image.
Monheit's team, meanwhile, all boast impressive resum's. Her core accompanists have worked, collectively, with Brad Mehldau, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Dorough, and Steely Dan, among others. In 2002 she married drummer Rick Montalbano, who is also her current tour and studio drummer. Also notable is guitarist Miles Okazaki, who has done session work with Lena Horne, Stanley Turrentine, and Jimmy McGriff.
Ultimately Jane Monheit adds mystery and swing to languid summer evenings on the front porch. If a love interest happens to join you on the swing, then her brand of sorcery has fully taken hold.