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Jane Monheit: Taking a Chance on Love

Who will be the 21st-century flag-bearer for the Great American Songbook? As late as a year ago, I would have handed the mantle to Diana Krall or Dianne Reeves. Now, with the release of Taking a Chance on Love (Sony Classical), it’s time to acknowledge jazz-cabaret hybrid Jane Monheit’s rightful place at the head of the traditionalist pack.

That’s not to suggest anything inferior about Monheit’s three previous collections of standards or last year’s sublime Live at the Rainbow Room, all released on N-Coded. If you liken Monheit to a finely trained athlete (which, vocally, she is), the N-Coded discs were vigorous workouts done in preparation for the gold medal victory that is Taking a Chance on Love. Simultaneously echoing the purity of Jane Oliver, the dexterity of Keely Smith, the jazz smarts of Chris Connor and the cabaret pizzazz of Julie Wilson, Monheit takes a headlong dive into vintage Hollywood, showcasing that buttercream voice of hers in various settings as she caresses a dozen classics from MGM musicals of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Monheit demonstrates equal ease working with her touring quartet (pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Orlando Le Fleming, guitarist Miles Okazaki and drummer Rick Montalbano, who doubles as Monheit’s husband), a guest trio comprised of Geoffrey Keezer (piano) plus former recording mates Christian McBride (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums) and variously configured orchestras, and has reached a level of vocal self-confidence and maturity that intimate duets with Kanan and guitarist Romero Lubambo prove stunningly assured.

Blessed with Wilson’s storytelling flair, she displays tremendous agility in her handling of everything from the trembling fragility of “Embraceable You” and tender contentment of “Bill” to the playful poutiness of Porter’s “Why Can’t You Behave” and slow-thawing distingue of “Love Me or Leave Me.” Paired with Michael Buble for a peppery “I Won’t Dance,” Monheit cleans the floor with the comparatively plodding crooner. (Next time, Jane, hold out for Kurt Elling or Harry Connick or Jamie Cullum-someone more worthy of your impeccable skills). There’s also a bonus track, “Over the Rainbow” which, far superior to the version that opened Monheit’s Come Dream With Me from 2001, is heard over the closing credits of the Jude Law-Gwyneth Paltrow sci-fi adventure Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It’s hard to imagine anyone eclipsing the Judy Garland original, recently selected by the American Film Institute as the greatest musical performance in Hollywood history, but Monheit manages to come dangerously close.

Originally Published