You couldn't turn on the radio or TV without another end-of-the-world-tinged report on the latest "winter event." Ice, sleet, snow, rain, or whatever else the heavens could throw at us was scheduled to pound the area beginning the afternoon of January 29. Those holding tickets to hear and see Jane Monheit at Durham's Carolina Theater were worried that this would lead to a cancellation of a rare visit by this fast-rising jazz vocalist. Luckily, a light dusting in the afternoon was the reality, despite the dire predictions, and the show went on.
Twenty-six year old Jane Monheit recently signed on as a major new artist with the Sony Classical label, and is on tour promoting her first recording for the mega-label, "Taking a Chance on Love." Despite her young age, Monheit is a savvy veteran with four other CDs that attracted the attention of well-known and established jazz veterans. Since winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition in 1998, she has enjoyed steadily-rising critical and popular success. Unfortunately, this rapid ascension has led to unnecessary comparisons to jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and the more contemporary Diana Krall. As her recordings and concerts have shown, she definitely has her own sound and style, and pitting artists against each other is a silly game.
Hopefully the weather threat was the prime reason there was not a sold-out crowd for this first visit by Monheit to this area.* It would be hard to swallow the fact that we do not have enough lovers of great jazz artists to support a concert by someone of Monheit's stature and talent. The warm-up act for the concert was an appearance by the winners of an a cappella competition last year – The Loreleis, a group of 13 young women, all students at UNC-Chapel Hill, who performed basically pop-style selections in very well-done arrangements. One of the downers of the entire evening was the fact that there were no programs – the booklets handed out listed programs only through November 2004. It would have been nice to have had at least the names of the women in this group as well as some background. The Loreleis include percussive effects but used no instruments of any kind. During their approximately 20-minute set, several soloists were featured, and they were all polished singers with unique personalities. Warm-up acts are always a hard sell, as everyone is anxiously awaiting the reason they came, but the audience genuinely appreciated the Loreleis.
Four musicians walked onto the stage and began playing a brief introduction before a voice intoned, "Please welcome Sony recording artist Jane Monehit" and out she came. She started right in with the title track of her new CD, "Taking a Chance on Love."
She initially gives you the impression of a throwback to the female singers that fronted many of the big bands of the '40s and '50s, but she soon lets you know that she is no retro-copycat and that her voice, style, and interpretations of these great classic songs are her own. She has an uncanny ability to sing comfortably and convincingly in a range from sultry, throaty alto to crystal clear high soprano. Monheit also employs the art of scatting (wordless improvisations like an instrumentalist) but uses it in a very tasteful manner in the context of a solo by a band member. Speaking of which, her band is a consummate group of players on piano, bass, drums (her husband), and guitar. Again, the lack of a program makes giving proper credit impossible.
Despite her label as a "jazz" singer she let the audience know that she grew up in a diverse musical background and is attracted to all styles and periods of song. One of the highlights of the evening was a beautifully arranged presentation of "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell, accompanied by just the guitarist. Another great moment was a lovely transformation of Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" into a Brazilian-tinged ballad that transported us from the chilly southern U.S. to the way-more-southern beaches of Rio. The band also got to showcase its incredible style and technique in a rapid-fire rendition of "That Old Black Magic."
I've read some comments that rehash old, formulaic criticisms that Monheit just does not have the "life experience" to sing the lyrics of some of these great songs convincingly. That is just ignorant nonsense. She is a wonderfully expressive performer who makes every song she sings a mini-drama, capturing the essence of the emotion both musically and visually.
My only complaint is that her set was way too short. I could have listened to her for hours. Luckily we have her current recordings and many more to come.
*Note: Monheit is scheduled to appear on the NCS' pops series next season.