If voices could be bought and sold the way that, say, violins are, Jane Monheit’s instrument would likely command a pretty price. Few can match her silky, sensual sonority, which bathes the ears in pure acoustic pleasure. Makes you want to fill up an entire bathtub with that sound and take a full-body soak.
The next best thing is to catch that Stradivarius of a voice live in concert. This weekend Albuquerque will get the opportunity to do just that, as the Long Island native brings her longtime quartet—with Michael Kanan (piano), Neal Miner (bass) and her husband Rick Montalbano (drums)—to town for a two-night stand at the Outpost.
Lovely as her voice is, what’s more remarkable is the absolute command she exercises over the notoriously tricky instrument. Her intonation: dead on. Her articulation: clear as a bell. Her command of timbre and dynamics: yipes. Her ability to communicate the emotional freight of a song: impressive. After all, she did finish as first runner-up in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 1998 at the tender age of 20.
“I literally practice my entire life,” she says by way of explanation. “All the technical stuff is there because, I mean, I guess I earned it with all the work I put in.”
Early in her career, critics took her to task for appearing to be more concerned with technique than with communicating a song’s content. Video evidence from across her career, however, does not appear to support this criticism. She brings drama to her delivery—thanks in part to a musical theater background—and an almost carnal love for the music she’s singing.
That attraction for her material allows Monheit to confidently step into standards that have already been well represented by famous musical ancestors, such as Ella, Sarah and Billie. Though she’s quick to recognize their influence, she’s not challenged by who or what preceded her.
“These songs were written to be sung over and over again,” she says. “They’re classics and they’re timeless. Hearing a million different interpretations is wonderful. It’s not a challenge if the song means something to you.”
That comes across clearly on her most recent release, Home (Emarcy). After several recordings with large, lush ensembles she returns to the smaller, intimate setting of the quartet and to the standards for which she has a particular fondness.
“My approach to singing standards is not necessarily what a real super-hard-core, nuts-and-bolts jazz person wants to hear,” Monheit says. She notes the influence of Broadway singers in her delivery, and she feels that she renders the songs, many of which originated on the boards, closer to the way their composers wanted to hear them—for example, in higher keys.
“I’m not doing this low jazzy thing,” she explains in a comical basso. What’s most important to her is singing the tunes in a personal way that is “honest and true to who I am.”
Make no mistake, though: Improvisation, swing, and jazz interpretation and harmony are present in abundance. This lady knows how to scat, too. Though it’s not often featured on her recordings, she says you can expect to catch more of that in concert.
You can also expect a tight, well-oiled quartet. Monheit has been playing with these fellows for a while, and it shows. It doesn’t hurt that she can communicate with them as a fellow musician—she earned a B.A. with honors from the Manhattan School of Music.
“You can’t just get by with a pretty voice and a good ear. You’ve got to be able to communicate with your band,” she says. “You’ve got to be able to lead a band.”
That she does, and very well, too.