Jane Monheit wears her musical heart on her sleeve. Maybe it’s because she’s passionate about the music she loves and sings. Or maybe it’s because she’s a hopeless romantic, still basking in the glow of her recent marriage to drummer Ricky Montalbano. In any case, the 26-year-old singer was eager to sit and listen and talk on a beautiful autumn day, while her band did their sound check for that evening’s performance at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland. Unlike some musicians who can be frustratingly reticent or enigmatic, Monheit enjoys conversation and is both insightful and unfailingly polite when discussing her fellow singers. Only once was she less than articulate-when she heard Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with orchestra arranged by Vince Mendoza, she welled up with tears and finally admitted she could not find words to adequately express just how much Mitchell’s music means to her. Because we had such a limited amount of time, we jumped right in.
1. Ella Fitzgerald
“Looking For A Boy,” from Pure Ella (Decca Jazz). Fitzgerald, vocal; Ellis Larkins, piano. Recorded in 1950.
Before: Oh, I know this. [sings along]. This is the record with Ellis Larkins, right? This is one of my favorite sides of Ella. I loved when Ella kept it simple. Her voice was so beautiful and so pure and I really tried to learn that lesson from her. These records were such an excellent example for me when I was trying to pare things down and really get to the bottom of the music, rather than worry about vocal gymnastics. And Ella, who could do anything she wanted, made these gorgeous recordings where she was really thinking about the melody. I just love the way Ellis accompanies her, too. They’re both so well suited to each other that they can interpret the tune exactly the way they want to and it’s still a perfect fit. I love the recording they did together of Stardust.
What makes this timeless?
The lyrical content and the beautiful melody. I’d much rather listen to this than hear her wail with a big band, though I love that too. This is something I aspire to. It’s a challenge to just sing the melody. For her to make the choice to stick to the melody-that’s a really powerful thing when it comes from a woman who could do absolutely anything.
2. Ian Shaw
“Alone Again, Naturally,” from A World Still Turning (441 Records). Shaw, piano, vocal. Recorded in 2003.
Before: I love how conversational it is, how the piano doesn’t get in the way of the words just being spoken so honestly. There’s a wonderful lack of vanity about this, about this wonderful lyric. You can hear the love of pop music as much as the love of jazz, and it comes together in a really natural voice. I’ve never heard this song before but I love people who are unafraid of inflection from other genres, especially when it’s the most natural thing to do. It’s a mature voice. It never gets in the way of the message of the song. Some of the phrasing makes me think of Joni Mitchell, they way she would deliver a lyric, the way the words just come out of her completely in the service of the lyric. [at conclusion] Wow, that was really powerful. It has that feeling like it was just an absolutely magical take, where everyone in the studio was just holding their breath. This is a beautiful recording.
After: I need to listen to more of this. He’s wonderful.
3. Cassandra Wilson
“Lay Lady Lay,” from Glamoured (Blue Note). Wilson, vocal; Brandon Ross, guitar; Reginald Veal, Calvin Jones, bass; Jeffrey Haynes, percussion; song by Bob Dylan. Recorded in 2003.
Before: Cassandra has the most amazing taste in repertoire. She’s made so much possible for the rest of us because of the incredible songs she’s chosen. She’s opened up this world where jazz vocalists are so much freer now. I think it’s so important that vocalists like Cassandra are also such strong musicians. It’s not about being a singer-it’s about being a strong, powerful expressive musician, and it’s wonderful that such a strong musician is at the top of the field.
After: This is just purely musical. And she has an incredibly distinctive sound, you can’t mistake her for anyone else. That’s rare, know what I mean? I love that. I really respect her.
4. João Gilberto
“Chega de Saudade,” from The Legendary João Gilberto (World Pacific). Gilberto, guitar and vocal; musical direction by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Recorded in 1958.
Before: [immediately starts to sing along] João? Brazilian music has become so important to me. When I was a kid I listened to João, Astrud, Elis, and Jobim and all that. In more recent years I’ve been listening to Ivan Lins a lot. There’s so much that appeals to me about this music. Rhythmically, nothing feels better to me at this point in my life than Brazilian music. If I could have a beautiful samba groove accompanying me everywhere I went, like a soundtrack to my life, I’d be very happy just to live in my own little samba bubble. Even now, when I want to create a mood of romance, whenever I want to sing about love, I turn to Brazilian music rather than ballads. I’m not sure why. People like Jobim and Lins have written the modern standards.
This is one of the very first bossa nova records. What tipped you off that it’s João?
His sound, and the way he phrases is just so incredibly relaxed. His tone is so distinctive and his timbre is so different from everyone else. There’s no mistaking João, just like there’s no mistaking Ella or Frank Sinatra. I think we’ll do a lot of Brazilian songs tonight.
5. Luciana Souza
“All of Me,” from North and South (Sunnyside). Souza, vocal; Bruce Barth, piano; Scott Colley, bass; Clarence Penn, drums. Recorded in 2003.
Before: I love the idea of taking this song at a slower tempo and making the most out of this incredibly romantic lyric. It’s strange when you think of this song as the perky swinger it normally is, especially when you listen to what this song is saying. It talks about surrendering your complete self to someone who’s just left you. [listens more] I also love her modification of the melody. It’s not often that you hear someone simplifying the melody of a standard to get closer to the meaning of the lyric, rather than embellishing it. Know what I mean? It’s such an interesting approach. So moody and dreamy and melancholy. It’s as if she interprets it not as a song of flirtation, but as a last ditch effort that she knows will lead to a sad ending. Is it Luciana Souza?
What gave it away?
It’s her gorgeous timbre. I love her. She one of my very favorite singers, but I’ve not heard her sing in English before. I listen to her recordings in Portuguese all the time, especially her Brazilian Duos record w/Romero Lubambo, which is very special to me. The mood here was everything, and everyone made the choice to support that mood and feeling rather than a chord.
After: Ah, Bruce is such an incredible pianist. Working with him is wonderful because his sense of harmony is so special. Plus, he really loves and appreciates vocalists.
6. Danilo Perez
“…till then” from …till then (Verve). Perez, piano; Lizz Wright, vocal; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2003.
Before: Such a pretty vibrato. What range. That sounds so good. Her vocal production and vibrato is so natural. All these beautiful relaxed singers that you’re playing for me. As a passionate person, I tend to sing very passionately and sometimes I have to remind myself to just relax. This singer sounds familiar. I love this rhythm section. I love to hear a band really play behind a singer, where they don’t just baby-sit the singer [laughter].
After: Oh, that’s Lizz Wright? Oh my gosh. I should have recognized her voice. I think she’s wonderful. I like her own record and I really really like the way she sings. Ah, Blade. Brian is just one of my favorite drummers. I love the sound of his cymbals. He’s got such a beautiful feel and I love his attitude. Danilo too. Nice record.
7. Tierney Sutton
“I’ve Grown Accustomed To His Face,” from Something Cool (Telarc). Sutton, vocals; Christian Jacob, piano; Trey Henry, bass; Ray Brinker, drums. Recorded in 2002.
Before: Interesting arrangement. I love the acapella opening and the way it absolutely demands attention. And I love people who are unafraid to be completely naked without a band protecting them. Gosh. I love the harmonic approach and that pedal [point in the bass], so the voice is free to completely float. There’s so much freedom, even after the piano comes in. This is beautiful, the way she separates herself from time and harmony and deals with the core of the tune, the melody. And then they come back and pay respect to the composer. I love the way she floats through the harmony and on top of this great groove. It’s so free and natural. That’s the theme of today [laughter]. But that’s some of the hardest stuff to do. I just loved that.
After: Oh, I almost said Tierney. She’s an incredible singer. We met at the Monk competition years ago. She’s amazing. I love her choice of tunes. Her sound is so beautiful.
8. Ann Dyer
“Bachelorette,” from When I Close My Eyes (Sunnyside). Dyer, vocal; John Shifflett, bass; Jason Lewis, drums; song written by Björk. Recorded in 2003.
Before: [listens intently with head cocked] Wow. That’s a deep lyric. I love how the message of the lyric is really intense but the vocal is so relaxed. The intensity is in the accompaniment. I also love how there are no chords, so there’s so much room around her. Every little bend is about her. I don’t know who this is, and I’ve never heard this song. I love the approach, with all the dark dramatic ideas; it’s relaxed and intense at the same time.
After: Oooh. I love Björk.
What do you like about her?
Her fearless individuality. I love her songs and the way she sings and the fact that she’s not afraid to take chances.
Interesting how many jazz musicians in recent years have covered songs by Björk and Radiohead.
I noticed that too. I think it’s because the level of their musicianship is so high and their songs are so sophisticated. They may become the modern standards, like Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell.
9. Rene Marie
“Bolero/Suzanne,” from Live At Jazz Standard (MAXJAZZ). Marie, vocal; John Toomey, piano; Elias Bailey, bass; T. Howard Curtis III, drums. Recorded in 2002.
Before: It’s not often you hear someone scatting Ravel. That’s great, I love it. I don’t know this second song, but I love the lyric, it’s so interesting. Such a beautiful voice, nice vibrato. Listening to all these vocalists is so gonna influence the way I sing tonight. It’s good for me to hear all these beautifully relaxed conversational voices.
After: I was thinking about Rene because there‘s such a confidence in the way she sings. She’s so at home with her instrument. I love her. This is a brilliant medley and she’s such a powerful musician. Not only does she have an incredible ear and sense of time and way of interpreting the music, but her instrument is so beautiful. She has everything.
Your three favorite records of all time?
Only three? That’s cruel and unfair [laughs]. I’d probably have to start with Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and then there are so many; Ivan Lins, João, Bill Evans Live At The Vanguard, maybe the Getz-Gilberto record. I also love the duo record Carmen McRae made with George Shearing.
This B&A was recorded for JazzTimes in the fall of 2003.