By Don Heckman
Jane Monheit’s in town again this week for another of her holiday season visits. She opened at Catalina Bar & Grill on Friday, continued on Saturday and will also perform at the club tonight (Sunday) and Monday, finishing up Tuesday with a New Year’s Eve appearance. And that’s great news for fans of prime jazz vocalizing.
Monheit’s first real visibility in the jazz community took place in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute’s Vocal Competition, when – at 21 – she was the first runner-up to veteran singer Teri Thornton in a field of competitors that also included Tierney Sutton and Roberta Gambarini.
She’s released a dozen or so recordings since then, and received a pair of Grammy nominations. But as appealing as all of her CDs have been, there’s nothing like hearing – and seeing – Monheit perform live, especially with the solid backing of her trio: pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and her husband, Rick Montalbano, on drums. Each of the frequent performances she’s done at Catalina Bar & Grill over the past few years has been both unique and memorable. And this one was no exception.
Call it a Great American Songbook set, a program of familiar classics, starting with Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night,” and concluding with Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm.” And we can’t overlook the equally memorable “I Was Born To Be Blue,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Never Let Me Go.”
Add to that Monheit’s reference to what she described as the jazz aspects of Judy Garland via a richly blended medley of “The Boy Next Door” and “The Man That Got Away.”
All of the above titles are essential elements in the repertoire of most jazz and adult contemporary singers. But the real question lies in what a singer does with such classic items. And Monheit has thoroughly established herself over the past decade as one of the prime imaginative singers of the current music world.
In song after song, Monheit’s Saturday night program unfolded with the gripping expressiveness of a true musical story teller. Blessed with an extraordinary instrument, she employed all her vocal skills – a far-reaching range, variable tonal qualities, briskly swinging rhythmic articulation and penetrating emotional intensity – at the service of her interpretations. Topping it off, she dipped into some scat singing on a few tunes, delivered with an inventiveness that would probably have delighted Ella Fitzgerald.
Call it a great evening of music for every member of Monheit’s enthusiastic audience. But I couldn’t help but feel that this was a performance that should be heard by other singers, too – a performance with sufficient creative information to aid anyone with ambitions for a vocal career. With three more performances this week, Catalina’s should draw more full houses to her seminars in the art of expressive vocalizing.
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Photos by Faith Frenz.