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Jane Monheit: Any Way She Wants It

Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit

Here’s my theory: If hubba-hubba singer Jane Monheit were to style her Rapunzelian hair in a safe Doris Day bob-and maybe blot that cherry-bomb lipstick on her pronounced pucker-the brouhaha about her legitimacy as a true jazz vocalist wouldn’t be nearly as fevered. If she were, say, dog-bone ugly with a stunning voice-instead of being drop-dead gorgeous with powerhouse pipes-curmudgeonly critics in awe of yesteryear wouldn’t be trying nearly so hard to kill her buzz. And yes, if she were a wizened, weary 45 instead of a bubbly, tireless 25, that would no doubt ease her acceptance among the pooh-poohing genre windbags, as well.

Whether my humble little theory is dead-on or way off, Monheit doesn’t really care. OK, maybe she cares a little. After all, no one likes being incessantly dumped on for doing something that feels so pure, so natural, so right. The various slams-that she lacks emotional oomph, that she’s an unnuanced cabaret howler, that she’s a product of good marketing, that she’s basically Christina Aguilera to Diana Krall’s Britney Spears-have certainly stumped the popular chanteuse. I mean, does she really need to suffer to sing the hell outta “Waters of March”?

For the most part, however this affable Long Island native who recently got hitched-and who’s about to flat-out wow a sold-out crowd of admirers here in Northern Virginia-is having way too much fun to let a little negativity get her down. After all, she’s played such jazz Valhallas as the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note. She’s recorded three solo albums with such heavyweight sidemen as Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Bucky Pizzarelli and David “Fathead” Newman. Her second album, 2001’s Come Dream With Me, debuted at number one on the Billboard jazz charts. Her new album, In the Sun, is her best one yet, a refreshing mix of standards and reworked folk, pop and blues classics. And, most thrilling, she continues to meet wide-eyed fans who recently knew nothing about swing, bebop, etc. until she showed up and knocked ’em clear into a brand new musical world.

So here she is, her curvaceous frame reclining in a cushy dressing-room chair in Alexandria, Va.’s Birchmere theater. She is dressed in an ankle-length blue denim skirt and a brown corduroy shirt. She looks like a full-figured cross between Hollywood hotties Annette Bening and Tara Reid. Her red lips are properly pouted and painted, her tresses are unfurled down near to her navel and there’s more than a bit of mischief in those mesmerizing dark peepers. She’s a looker all right, but once she starts chatting-and she’s really good at that, too-she’s not what you’d expect at all.

Let’s see if you can handle her, guys.

“I really don’t get nervous,” Monheit says with a matter-of-fact shrug about an hour before she’s to take the stage for an energetic 80-minute set. “I never get nervous before a show. Well, when I did Letterman last year, I was terrified. I mean, it was David Letterman. But once I got out there, I was fine.”

What does have Monheit a little unnerved this rainy Friday evening, especially down here in the seemingly benign suburban reaches of the nation’s capital, is the so-called serial sniper who’s been keeping the area on edge for more than a week now. And just like everyone else, she’s been doing a little armchair gumshoeing of her own.

“If [the sniper] knew anything about the tarot, he would never have used that card,” she says, referring to the discovery of a tarot “death” card at the scene of one of the shootings. “I know tarot: I used to read tarot cards when I was a teenager and in college. I still kinda am into astrology. I always thought that stuff was so much fun. But the death card means rebirth and a new beginning. If he was trying to be truly dark, he would have left the ‘tower’ card.”

She pauses, then adds: “Jeez, I’m such a dork for knowing that.”

At a time when she might feel a need for the occasional self-hug, Monheit is refreshingly self-deprecating, even going so far as saying that, not too long ago, when she was just another Long Island girl growing up in Oakdale, N.Y., she was actually kinda ugly. (Yeah, I don’t believe it, either.)

“It blows my mind that people get concerned with what I look like, that they let that form their opinions of me,” she says. “I think that’s just crazy.

I was the biggest ugly duckling in the world. I was very much a bit of a misfit in high school but proud to be marching to the beat of my own drummer. I just wasn’t like the other kids. My friends were sorta like the theater kids. I was the overdramatic girl who had the lead in the musical every year. That was me in high school.

“I grew up studying these old movie sirens,” she adds, “and wishing I was glamorous. The kind of pretty that was in when I was growing up was light years away from what I was. The cheerleader thing, the perky thing. I was always taller than most of the boys.”

She allows a sly smile: “I always had boyfriends, though. I never had trouble with boys.” (This you can believe.)

“You know, I even had a Goth moment,” Monheit remembers. “I never really dressed that way though. I never really got further than living in my Doc Martens and listening to Nine Inch Nails. I think Trent Reznor does a really cool thing. I’ve been meaning to pick up [The Fragile] since it came out.”

This curious mention of the man who gave us the metallic techno-grind of “Head Like a Hole” reminds Monheit of another nonjazz favorite, of which she has many.

“If I could go back in time and go to any rock concert and go to the front row and scream and cry, it would be Journey,” she says, putting her hand over heart and sighing for that mulleted lothario Steve Perry. “‘Open Arms’ is my favorite ’80s song. They were such a great band. Oh, and ‘Faithfully.’ And ‘Who’s Crying Now?'”

Indeed: Some of Monheit’s finest studio performances thus far have not involved well-worn jazz evergreens but less obvious folk, blues and pop tunes, including Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” a Bonnie Raitt-inspired “Love Has No Pride” and-my personal fave-a Kleenexian cover of Bread’s “If,” which, if David Gates ever stopped sobbing, would probably make him start sobbing again.

Don’t be surprised if somewhere down the road Monheit issues an album made up of only soft hits from the ’70s and ’80s. It’ll be gorgeous, of course. And she’ll no doubt take a whole lotta crap for it, too.

I always just knew I wanted to be a singer,” Monheit says. “I was singing and talking around 18 months old. No one in my life ever seemed to doubt me, so I never doubted myself.”

There aren’t too many Monheits who aren’t musically inclined. Her father is a bluegrass banjo player, her mother performed in musical theater, an aunt and a grandmother were both singers and her brother is a guitar player in a rock band. With so many tune-carriers swirling around her, Monheit was able to sing “Over the Rainbow”-which is now the showstopping song in her live shows-at the ripe old age of 2. (A crackly snippet of her toddler rendition of the Wizard of Oz classic can be heard at the end of Come Dream With Me.)

There might have been fleeting moments when Monheit daydreamed of other career paths-marine biology (“I grew up on the water”), actress (“I’m a ham”)-but there was never any doubt about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

In high school, Monheit was the star in all the student-fueled musicals-well, almost all of them. “I missed out on [West Side Story’s] Maria two different times,” she laughs. “And both times, I swear on my life, it was because the only Tony they could find was a really, really short man. And in my bare feet, I’m 5-foot-8. What are they going to do, have me kneel? But I got to be Consuelo, and she sings ‘Somewhere.’ So that was good.”

When she was 17 years old, after playing a few clubs on the Island’s south shore, Monheit was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music, where she studied with famed jazzman Peter Eldridge. This was also where she met Ricky Montalbano, a jazz drummer who records and tours with her today-and who (the no-good lucky bastard) is able to call Monheit his beloved wife.

“I honestly don’t believe that any man I’ve ever seen, a movie star or in real life, could even hold a candle to my husband in any remote, possible way,” she says, still very much in the amorous fog of your typical newlywed-and still very much crushing the sad, pathetic hopes of single dudes the world over. “I look at Jude Law, and I’m like, yeah, you’re OK, but you’re no Ricky.”

When forced-I mean, a sad, pathetic single guy can only take so much of that wedded bliss crap, you know?-Monheit will allow that if she had to have a fantasy “celebrity boyfriend,” it would be big, badass Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini.

“Ricky and I live for The Sopranos,” she says. “We once had a show when it was on, so we had to catch the encore on HBO2 on Monday. But just knowing that it aired, and that that information is out in the world, made us crazy.”

“I watch tons of TV,” Monheit adds. “I’m really a Conan person. I’m still upset about Andy Richter leaving. The Golden Girls is just about my favorite television show ever. That’s one of my favorite ways to end the day, to relax. The Golden Girls is the best thing to fall asleep to. I just love sitcoms.”

These days, Monheit obviously enjoys talking about the mundane moments of life. She is, after all, still very much a kid, and lugging around Next Big Thing status-a controversial perch if there ever was one-can weigh a young woman down.

In 1998, a 20-year-old Monheit entered the Thelonious Monk Institute vocal competition. She finished second to the late Teri Thornton, but the exposure landed her a deal with N-Coded Music and soon allowed her to record her first album, 2000’s Never Never Land. But for strictly narrative purposes, her appearance at the event also brought about a pivotal meeting with a woman whom Monheit is destined to be compared with for a very long time.

“I’ve only met Diana Krall once, and it was at the Monk competition,” she says. “She was unbelievably nice to me. I was this scared kid who idolized her. She gave me and Ricky tickets to come see her show at Blues Alley that night. I’ll never forget that she was so nice in the middle of all that chaos.”

They haven’t talked since, but there’s no doubt that they wouldn’t lack for conversation topics. Monheit’s three albums have not sold the stratospheric amounts of Krall’s myriad bestsellers, but that ugly duckling from Long Island has certainly become familiar with the jazz-lite monikers the blonde, leggy superstar has had to deal with.

“It’s just part of the business,” Monheit sighs. “Whenever someone new comes along, they are compared to everything else and how are they going to affect the industry. It’s just the way it goes. And to tell you the truth, I really don’t spend much time thinking about it. I can’t let myself worry about it. In the beginning, I did. But now I’ve come to the conclusion that I just have to listen to myself.”

David Hajdu’s cutting feature on Monheit in the December 31, 2000, New York Times Magazine-he traveled with her to her grandparents’ home before labeling her success “bad news for the future of jazz”-has probably been the most upsetting piece.

“I was…surprised,” she says, looking down, watching her words. “But no matter what was said about me, it was still a good thing to have my name in a paper like that. I figure that no matter what they’re saying about you, as long as they’re talking, you have to be doing something right.”

Is that your jacket on the floor?” Monheit asks when she sees my raggedy green windbreaker littering the worn carpet of her dressing room. “I have this inner Martha Stewart, heavily maternal streak. I travel with these boys all the time, so I always feel the urge to take care of them.”

Besides timekeeping husband Montalbano, Monheit is touring with longtime pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Joe Martin and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm. Monheit is completely relaxed playing with these guys, and she often speaks with them via a secret language delivered solely by her eyes.

“We are very much a family,” she says warmly. “It provides a lot of shelter.”

And it provides her confidence during her shows. Dressed in black open-toed heels, a long black leather skirt that hugs closely to her zaftig figure, and a sleeveless black mesh top that offers just a tease of décolletage, Monheit vamps it up pretty good during tonight’s show, often leaning back on Kanan’s piano and lifting a foot in the air like she’s wooing the Fabulous Baker Boys. She stacks the set list with cuts from her latest album, In the Sun: Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” and Ivan Lins’ “Once I Walked in the Sun,” one of three Brazilian cuts on the new disc.

“The one musician who inspires me more than anyone else right now is Ivan Lins,” Monheit says before the show. “I’m the kind of person who really focuses on one thing and gets everything I can out of it. When I was small, it was Ella Fitzgerald. In college, it was Bill Evans. And right now, I’m so focused on Brazilian music, and Ivan Lins is a huge part of it. He’s just such an incredible songwriter, and his melodies are so singable. Meeting him and working with him was amazing.”

Monheit starts laughing: “I could not even think about singing ‘Once I Walked in the Sun’ last night. We had a show in a church. And there’s a line in there, ‘When we made love.’ I didn’t feel right about it, not in a church, you know? I mean, my great-grandfather was a minister.”

The one song she never leaves out of a performance is, of course, “Over the Rainbow,” which used to close the show but now is tucked in the middle. With her clear delivery and register-traversing acrobatics, Monheit gives the oft-covered song a sad, bluesy feel-and enough loin-burning heat to let you know we’re not in Kansas anymore.

“The song is really intense,” she says. “No one’s ever gonna match Judy in the barnyard, but it’s all about the personal connection.”

Monheit certainly connects with her audience. They love her, can’t get enough of her. She is at once sweet and sexy, a seductive one-two combo that few can pull off. When she mock-whines that she’s just found her first wrinkle, the crowd emits a collective “Awww” that sounds like a canned effect straight outta one of her beloved sitcoms.

“I sort of have a game plan when performing,” Monheit says. “I love it when something happens in the audience. I love it when someone’s cell phone rings. It takes nothing to make us all crack up. We were in Germany, with this huge crowd in this really beautiful old concert hall. It’s the end of the show, and ‘Rainbow’ was the big finale. I open it a cappella, and the whole crowd is silent. And then, some poor man makes the most ridiculous combination of sneeze, cough, snarfing noise. I just bust out, and the whole band starts laughing and the audience starts laughing. I was bent over at the waist crying, laughing so hard.”

Monheit will keep this tour rolling until next spring, when she will head back into the studio to record a Christmas album, to be released just in time for the 2003 holiday season. “There’ll be some standards,” she says, “but I’m also hoping to do some interesting arrangements of old carols.”

After that, who knows? It’s always a crapshoot with the Next Big Thing.

“I wanna have, like, a thousand babies,” she says. “Down the road, someday. I feel like it’s just as important to me to be a mother as it is to be a musician. It’s a true calling to me to have children. Who knows when? Certainly not tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to the day.”

As I begrudgingly wrap up the interview-trying one last time to get her to sing a little of Journey’s “Open Arms”-Monheit remembers a story about a curious encounter with an audience member. It seems that after a recent show, as she was signing albums for fans, a woman tried to give her voice lessons.

“She said, ‘I think you did this wrong,'” Monheit says, adding that the woman was not a big fan of her phrasing. “‘Well, it’s all a matter of opinion,’ I told her. And she said, ‘Well, I guess you sound all right.'”

Monheit smiles, that twinkle still very much in her eyes. “I guess I shouldn’t be amused and interested by these things, but I am,” she says, slowly running a hand through that Rapunzelian hair. “All those reactions are fascinating to me.”


In the Sun

N-Coded Music

I’m guessing that Jane Monheit is getting awfully tired of the endless debate about which musical camp she belongs in. Sagacious singer that she is, though, Monheit has wisely opted to embrace the musical multiplicity that critics find so frustrating. On In the Sun, her third–and indisputably finest-album, the plucky 25-year-old explores her chameleonlike vocal dexterity to maximum effect.

Opening with a playfully seductive “Just Squeeze Me,” Monheit exhibits a slinky maturity not evident on her two previous discs, ably dispelling any lingering doubts about her jazz chops. The soulful “Once I Walked in the Sun” (paralleled later in the album by a nicely tempered cover of “Love Has No Pride”) recalls the young, earnest Linda Ronstadt at her country-rock best. Monheit’s soaring interpretation of Bernstein, Comden and Green’s languid “Some Other Time” is worthy of Broadway’s greatest balladeer, Barbara Cook. Her peppy, fun-filled “Cheek to Cheek,” very reminiscent of Ann Hampton Callaway, is pure cabaret. An achingly beautiful, seven-minute “It Never Entered My Mind” suggests the sweet melancholy that informed Judy Holiday’s exquisite studio work with Gerry Mulligan. “Tea for Two,” reshaped as a tender ballad, provides an ideal showcase for Monheit’s ability to project a cunning fragility and demonstrates that she is, like any gifted jazz or cabaret performer, as good an actress as she is a singer.

If there’s any justice in the music business (and we all know there isn’t), In the Sun will be the album that, once and for all, defuses any further discussion of Monheit’s rightful place among the foremost contemporary stylists. If not, at least it’ll prove she’s every bit as clever as she is beautiful.

-Christopher Loudon

Originally Published