The artistry of romance
Jane Monheit doesn’t just sing the standards. She dwells in them, inviting listeners to fall in love all over again, as she does, too, on each and every song.
By Naila francis
When Jane Monheit sings, it is easy to see why the young chanteuse has a hard time responding to one of the questions posed to her most frequently.
The Long Island native, one of several fresh-faced newcomers finding success with the standards and their enduring appeal, knows how to inhabit a song.
From her spirited, flirtatious take on favorites such as “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Love Me or Leave Me” to the simmer of emotion on ballads such as “Do I Love You?” and “Embraceable You” — on which the clarity of her voice is complemented by the stark beauty of a solo Brazilian guitar — Monheit, with her latest album, “Taking A Chance on Love,” makes the romance of the music her artistry.
She can be sassy or rapturous, coolly elegant or girlishly giddy — charting the experience of love with a sincere appreciation for its many moods and shades.
It helps, of course, to be married to, and unabashedly in love with, her drummer, Rick Montalbano — of whom she says: “I’m constantly singing right over my left shoulder to him. It’s impossible not to.”
But when people wonder why she’s enamored of such classics, for Monheit, it’s more like why wouldn’t she be?
“I listened to (this music) from the day I was born and always really loved it,” she says. “I was always singing it, too. It’s just been the most natural sound to my ear.”
And while there seems to be an ever-growing roster of talents — Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum, Peter Cincotti — revisiting and refreshing favorites from the Great American Songbook, there is nothing gimmicky or faddish about Monheit.
She is as sincere in her passion for the music as she is unpretentious, shrugging off any allusions to the demanding and oft-times arrogant air that has become the stereotype for singers in the jazz-pop vein.
“People always tell me, ‘You’re not what I expected.’ They have that whole diva idea — ‘You’re a jazz singer, so you must not be nice,’ or ‘You’re a singer, so you must not know anything about music,’ which is one of my favorites,” says Monheit. “I think it’s all so silly.
“I am a musician first and foremost. As far as a little dressing up and the glamour and all of that, I just happen to be that kind of person. I never would have been forced into it. If I were the same kind of singer and never wore any makeup, shaved my head and had tattoos all over my face, I would certainly hope people would still buy tickets to my shows.”
For Monheit, who performs Friday with Michael Feinstein at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, music has been her life’s constant companion.
She hails from a musical family, with a mother who performed in musical theater, a father who plays bluegrass banjo, a brother who plays rock guitar and an aunt and a grandmother who were both professional singers.
And then there was her fascination with the musicals of MGM — “The Band Wagon,” “Du Barry Was a Lady,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Show Boat,” “Thousands Cheer” and “The Wizard of Oz,” to name a few.
“I watched these movies from the time I was a little kid,” she says. “At the same time, I was listening to great jazz singers, hearing those same songs sung differently by those singers. I was singing along to Whitney Houston, just like everyone else and totally listening to popular music at the time and a lot of bluegrass, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, a lot of folk.
“I was trying to emulate all of the singers I was listening to, and it wasn’t until I was older that I started developing my own sound.”
She was especially drawn to Ella Fitzgerald, an idol to whom Monheit herself has often been compared. Her mother, she recalls, made her pay particular attention to Fitzgerald’s technique to encourage her daughter in becoming a healthy vocalist.
By the time Monheit began her vocal training at New York’s Manhattan School of Music, there was no doubt about the career path she would take. In 1998, shortly before completing her studies at the school, at the tender age of 20, she took the second prize in the Thelonious Monk Competition.
She began work on her first recording, “Never Never Land,” after leaving the school and made a steady ascent to jazz sensation, with three solo albums under her belt, as well as appearances on several compilations before making her debut for Sony Classical with “Taking a Chance on Love.”
With so many songs to choose from — and so many critics eager to tear apart the young vocal stylists mining the American standards — Monheit harbored few qualms about the album, which remained No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz charts for several weeks after its release.
She does not think of her task as reinventing the classics, especially songs such as “Over the Rainbow,” which appears both on her CD and over the closing credits of the film “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”
“If I have to think about that, then the song isn’t right for me,” she says. “A song has to find you and it has to be meaningful for you for some other reason. You can’t just pick one out and look at it and say, ‘OK, how am I going to make it my own?’ That’s a crazy approach.
“A song like ‘Over the Rainbow’ — people always say ‘That’s Judy’s signature tune. How do you make that yours?’ Well, I learned that song first before any other tune when I was 2 years old. So it’s deeply meaningful to me because of this bond I have with my parents and my own family. That’s why I’m not afraid to sing it. It has to be a truly moving song for me.”
Despite the fast and heady rush of fame, Monheit, who now lives in Manhattan, is taking her success with customary grace.
“I’m very lucky because I’m able to travel through all of this and experience this with a wonderful, supportive husband,” she says. “Because I had this wonderfully grounded person to share it with, I was able to look at it all without taking it too seriously or investing too much of my inner self in it. It’s so easy to get lost in this business, and you have to be careful you don’t get consumed by your career because it’s something you can never count on.”
Her aspirations speak to that sense of perspective.
“I hope people remember me as being a good musician,” she says. “I hope that I can help keep the beautiful traditions of this music alive and help to introduce them to new generations.
“And I hope I can raise some wonderful human beings and have kids and do that at the same time and be known as someone who could have a powerful career but still find time to be truly down to earth,” she says, “and a good human being.”
– The Intelligencer