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Jane Monheit: The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald

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Among vocal-jazz projects, surely the most ambitious and sublime is Ella Fitzgerald’s near-decade-long series of eight releases saluting giants of the Great American Songbook. Initiated by Norman Granz in 1956 to ignite his fledgling Verve label, the landmark project continued through 1964, spanning more than 250 compositions from Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Now, 60 years since that project’s inception, Jane Monheit pays tribute with a 12-song program that touches on most of the masters, with Kern curiously omitted.

It is a salute in name only. Fitzgerald and Monheit are very different singers, their approaches to the material similarly valid but utterly distinct. Monheit’s style is plusher and denser-crushed velvet to Fitzgerald’s silk-her predilection for vocal undulation reaching new heights. Fitzgerald, under Granz’s direction, opted for more straight-ahead interpretations. With Nicholas Payton as producer and primary arranger, Monheit favors slyer, more complex treatments. Her far darker take on Arlen’s “Ill Wind” is barrenly despondent, her slither across Porter’s “All of You” coyly seductive, her harp- and organ-propelled “This Time the Dream’s on Me,” from Arlen and Mercer, a creamy lullaby. Most interesting, taking a half-step out of the vintage mélange, she seamlessly blends the Gershwins’ “I Was Doing All Right” with Amy Winehouse’s “Know You Now,” atop a gentle bossa beat.

Originally Published