Live Jazz: Jane Monheit at Catalina Bar & Grill

By Don Heckman

Okay, let me get right to the point up front.  Jane Monheit’s performance at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night produced some of the most memorable music of this or any other year.  And I can think of no better holiday present – to loved ones or oneself – than spending a couple of hours in the presence of this extraordinary artist before she wraps up her weeklong run Sunday night.

New Year’s Eve would be an especially celebratory time to do it (if it’s still possible to make a reservation).  But Monheit will be every bit as delightful on the other nights of this week, as well – from tonight through Sunday.

That said, why am I making such a wide open recommendation?

The answer goes back to 2000, when I reviewed Never Never Land, Monheit’s first recording, in the L.A. Times.  In the first sentence, I wrote “OK, the name isn’t familiar, but here’s a flat-out guarantee that it will be within the year.”

Not to brag, but I was right.  And Monheit, who was 22 at the time, has been on a continuing upward slope ever since.  I’ve heard and written about her many times since then, always favorably, always in admiration of her capacity to make the most of her superb natural skills.

From the very beginning – as early as her 2nd place finish in the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Compeition – Monheit’s fundamental qualities were firmly in place.  A voice that moved easily from tiny, bell-like head tones to a broad deeply affecting contralto; perfect pitch; remarkably mature interpretive insights; a gift for melodic variation; and a buoyant sense of swing.  Add to that a stage presence blossoming with charm, grace, humor and sensuality.

All of which were present in abundance on Tuesday night, in a set that was lovingly supported by long time musical companions Michael Kanan on piano (and the author of many of the arrangements), bassist Neal Miner and drummer (and husband) Rick Montalbano.

The program cruised from one highlight to another.  An ear-caressing rendering of “Moonlight In Vermont.”  A jaunty romp through “I Won’t Dance,” a song she recorded, with sexy, musically whimsical results, with Michael Bublé.  A stunning take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time.”  She soared through a Portuguese version of Tom Jobim’s high flying “Samba Do Aviao” and found emotional linkages between songs by Bill Evans and Ivan Lins.

Monheit’s intimate, deeply touching “Over the Rainbow” placed her version among the definitive interpretations by Judy Garland and Eva Cassidy.  And, on “Twisted,” as well as several other tunes, she casually displayed her jaunty ease with scatting and vocalese.

There was a time when some observers admired Monheit as a singer, while questioning whether the word “jazz” actually belonged before that description.  Those days are long gone.  As Tuesday night’s performance made clear, she is indeed a jazz singer, one of the world’s finest.  But it’s also correct to say that she is simply a great singer, as well, regardless of the appellation.  A great singer who should be heard at every opportunity.

Which brings me back to my opening sentence. Jane Monheit and her gifted players will be at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday.  Don’t miss them.

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