By Susan Hasho
Jane Monheit opened at Birdland having just completed her Ella Fitzgerald tour and promoting the new album The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald. She was very glad to be back in her hometown of New York and at her favorite club, Birdland— obviously grateful.
She said she chose songs with a focus on feeling “cozy” and “like a big hug” for this show, emphasizing how much the musicians on stage were all like family. The synergy between Monheit and her band is exciting, and the arrangements are virtuoso expressions of the combined gifts of the musicians and her wide vocal range and style. The Jane Monheit Quintet is Michael Kanan (piano) Neal Miner (bass) Aaron Weinstein (violin) and Perry Smith (guitar) and they are each and every one outstanding— in addition, Kanan and Miner have both created arrangements for the quintet.
Ms. Monheit opened with “Nobody but Me” (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern) in a breezy, classic jazz style, as though she was skipping with her fabulous musicians in anticipation of fun to come. “Stars Fell in Alabama” (Renee Olstead) was sung slow and warm, and in Monheit’s elongated open-vowel warmth the lyrics seemed to be rolling around in and under the arrangement. She said the Ella tour lasted longer than expected— “out of control” in her words. That said, it’s clear that Ella Fitzgerald is one of her most treasured musical influences. “This Is Always” (Mack Gordon/Harry Warren) was a performance that was especially personal. She sang it softly and close to the bone, admitting she missed her husband.
“A Shine in Your Shoes” (Schwartz/Dietz from The Bandwagon) was accompanied with great joy by Michael Kanan on piano. Like many of the upbeat musical theater songs that night, the charm and scat she brings transforms them to “jazz tunes” in her hands.
“Honeysuckle” (Fats Waller) was a song Monheit has been singing since she was little. She never quite got the sexy subtext until she was “30 years old” she admits, and then proceeds to insinuate all up and down her gorgeous range and produces a fine portion of raunch. One of the high points of the show came next with “Caminhos Cruzados” (Antônio Carlos Jobim), performed in Portuguese. It was a joy to hear the song without any attempt at translation (usually a bad English one). She was expressive and compelling, her voice warm and slightly deeper. She is an honest, spontaneous singer, and when she hits a sweet spot of revelation there isn’t a more beautiful voice or actress anywhere.
Of course, there was “Stardust” (Hoagy Carmichael). Her version— she says after listening to 1,000 different versions of it with family members— and her bands’ amazing accompaniment was full-on, every instrument-gets-a-solo great. Next, surprise guests Billy Stritch and Jim Caruso joined Ms. Monheit on stage (frolicking, I must say) for what felt like an improv trio of “Avalon” (Vincent Rose), which of course was perfect.
The closing song— “Some Other Time” (Adolph Green, Betty Comden & Leonard Bernstein)— was one of her most beautiful performances of the night. I felt as though I was lost in a moment with her, followed by moment after moment that expressed an almost gossamer-like longing. There was a whole world of feelings present in her voice and body. Happily, Nancy Monheit defies a single description. You have to go see her.
Jane Monheit Quintet
At Birdland Jazz Club — 315 W. 44th St, NYC
Through Saturday, February 29th at 8:30 pm and 11:00 pm