Jane Monheit: Freshening a National Treasure with artistry and care by Ken Franckling

Jane Monheit credits Ella Fitzgerald as a primary musical influence but not so much for Ella’s style, which indelibly helped shape vocal jazz for every generation that followed. “What I really got from Ella is her warmth, her charm, the joy she puts in her music,” Jane says. “I learned that it’s okay to sing from a very happy place. I think there is a misconception that this kind of singing has to be always heavy and torchy. Ella showed us that it can be about total joy.”

The First Lady of Jazz is the focal point for Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald. It is Jane’s tenth studio recording since her 2000 debut, Never Never Land. The Ella project is the first on her own label, Emerald City Records, created because Jane sensed it was time for a change.

“I think I had five different labels in 15 years. They all wanted to see what they could do to stretch me in ways they thought I should be stretching in,” she says. “They tended to leave out what I really wanted to do. As much as I love the pop covers and Brazilian music, I still want to swing, too. It was nice to make a record that’s more of a jazz album.”

Jane put her own emotional stamp on 12 songs from Ella’s repertoire. Nicholas Payton arranged and produced the CD. He plays trumpet on most tracks, plus piano and/or organ on the last two.

“We didn’t want to make a kind of record that Ella would have made in the 1950s. We wanted to take what we loved about her and bring it into ‘the now’ with all of the other things we love,” she says.

“Nick brought a lot of outside-of-the-genre influences we both really love,” Jane says. “For instance, on his arrangement of ‘I’ve got you Under my Skin,’ the opening groove is very reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.’ The blending of these kinds of things made this a fun project.”

They also freshened George Gershwin’s “I Was Doing Alright” with a bit of Amy Winehouse’s “Now You Know” at the end. She says in terms of storytelling, it makes sense. “It’s this song about ‘I thought my life was great, but you came along and–guess what?–things are even better. I didn’t know that could happen.’ And then you add this lyric that says ‘I’ve got to know you more, because we may never meet again.’ It’s adding a sexy end to the story where you see this character really going for it, approaching this person who she knows can make her life so much richer,” Jane says. “I love when a medley or a mash-up can increase the story.”

She said she wants to record a second volume of Ella material, if possible, teaming with Payton on material Ella did with Louis Armstrong. “We could do interesting things to bring that into today,” Jane says. “We can’t just be influenced by people who are around us. We need to go all the way back; we need to learn from the ones who taught the ones who taught us.”

Fresh from her second-place finish in 1998’s Thelonious Monk International Vocal Competition, Jane’s ingénue looks and passion for the Great American Songbook seemed at times to overshadow her exceptional vocal skills. As she nears her forties, turning 39 on Nov. 3, she notes that her song interpretations have changed over time.

“I can see my maturity forming. You live and you go through a lot. Most of these songs are about love and loss – that’s something we’re all experiencing in its different forms. It just changes as you grow and age, and that’s a beautiful thing,” she says.

“But I think it is just as beautiful to hear a young person sing a love song as it is if you hear someone who has been through countless love affairs sing it. Both outlooks are perfectly valid because no matter how old you are, it’s the oldest you’ve ever been – and you think you know everything.”

She knows one thing for certain. “The Great American Songbook is always going to be the core for me. I have a real sense of pride and purpose about keeping it alive, bringing the music to new generations,” Jane says. “It’s a national treasure. I’m really proud to be one of the singers that people want to hear handling that material.”

Jane Monheit’s quartet, with longtime bandmates Michael Kanan on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Rick Montalbano on drums, is at Birdland on Oct. 18-22.

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