Warmth in Winter
Jane Monheit brings a tropical tinge to yuletide songs.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Jane Monheit got her Christmas wish this year. With her big, luscious voice and fetching stage presence, the 28-year-old jazz singer has enjoyed a meteoric rise, parlaying a second-place finish at the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute Vocal Competition into a highly successful career.
Her new album The Season focuses on classic Christmas pop tunes and winter standards, such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Moonlight in Vermont,” all delivered in her trademark creamy tone. For her concert on Monday at the Sunset Cultural Center, she’ll be performing with her touring band, featuring bassist Orlando Le Fleming, guitarist Miles Okazaki, Michael Kanan on piano and keyboards and drummer Rick Montalbano, to whom Monheit is married.
“I’ve been wanting to make a Christmas album for my entire life,” Monheit says during a phone conversation from New York City. “My favorite thing about the album is that my band plays on the entire record. It’s the first time I’ve had a chance to make an album with my favorite rhythm section on the whole thing, and it’s the first album I’ve co-produced.”
Long before she released The Season, Monheit enjoyed performing Christmas season programs. But even in the midst of winter, she can’t help bringing a tropical breeze to the bandstand. Of course, the optional cocktail party prior to her performance, which requires a separate $20 ticket, offers another way to get a glow on, but Monheit prefers the insinuating rhythms of samba and bossa nova.
“We never go on stage now without featuring some of our favorite Brazilian tunes,” Monheit says. “It’s just our favorite thing in life right now. We can’t resist it.”
A self-described obsessive when it comes to her listening habits, Monheit has spent the past several years immersing herself in Brazilian popular music, both for personal pleasure and to hone the lilting rhythms that she’s increasingly incorporating into her performances. Indeed, hardly a show goes by that doesn’t include some pieces by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Ivan Lins, the Brazilian pianist, songwriter and pop star who accompanied her on two pieces on her 2002 album In the Sun.
“My band and I have been really focusing on it and working on it quite a bit,” Monheit says. “Our travels in Brazil over the last few years have been very inspiring to us. It’s an art form we’re really trying to perfect. I’ve been listening to a lot of Elis Regina especially. I’ve learned so much listening to her sing, she was just amazing.
“I’ve listened to Brazilian music my entire life,” she continues. “A part of me really wanted to do it in the most authentic way, but when I first moved to New York there’s a certain way that your standard American jazz musician will approach this music, and I did that for a minute and got tired of it right away. Now I sing in Portuguese, which is really important for these songs. The English translations aren’t always correct and the entire lilt of the song, the rhythm of the piece, changes dramatically when you put it back in its original language.”
Monheit suppressed her passion for Brazilian music for her last recording, 2004’s Taking a Chance on Love, a lush, orchestral album that marked her debut on Sony Classical. Not surprisingly, the album’s most effective track is a spare duet with Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo on the Gershwin standard “Embraceable You.” The album also includes a bonus track of her version of “Over the Rainbow” that was included on the soundtrack of the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
With a program consisting almost entirely of American Songbook classics from the 1920s and ‘30s, the album seems to catch Monheit at a moment of flux, relying on standards. She’s also expressed a strong interest in interpreting contemporary songs by people like Sting, Stevie Wonder, Carole King and Billy Joel.
If it sounds like Monheit is pushing against her image as a nostalgia-laden purveyor of American Songbook standards, that’s because the perception
was skewed to begin with. She has always cited singers outside of jazz as primary influences, such as Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell and the Irish-born, Nashville-based folkie Maura O’Connell. She still listens to Ella, Billie and Sarah, but on the road she’s more likely to be spinning the latest CDs by Nikka Costa and Bjork.
“I pay a lot of attention to what’s going on with new music,” Monheit says. “I’m definitely interested in singing songs that are a little more current. It’s really different for me to put my stamp on something that doesn’t have a stamp on it yet. That’s something I’d like to do a lot more of.”
The young singer is still getting her bearings after being catapulted into the spotlight. At first she was wildly praised in fawning reviews as the second coming of Ella Fitzgerald, when the truth is that she sees herself as a work in progress.
“I know that what I want to do is going to change over time,” Monheit says. “This is what I’m doing right now and I’m really enjoying it.”
<>Jane Monheit performs at the Sunset Cultural Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel, on Monday, Dec. 19, <>at 8pm. A cocktail party precedes the performance at 6:45pm. $47-$57 for the concert; $20 for the pre-concert party. 620-2048.>>