PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 17, 2007

The Sexy Side of Jazz

by Jim Newsom

The Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival in Newport News is an appropriate place to catch Jane Monheit in concert.

“When I was a little kid,” she said in a recent telephone conversation, “it was absolutely all about Ella. There were other singers that I loved, but I really studied Ella.

“I was also into Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Mel Torme, Irene Kral, Keely Smith, Helen Merrill; and I checked out a lot of musical theater. My dad is a bluegrass musician, so there was a lot of that. There was Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt, so many different kinds of things.”

But Monheit, who performs Friday night with trumpeter Chris Botti at the Ferguson Center, chose jazz.

“I always loved pop music,” she said. “I still do. But jazz always made sense to me. Now I’m expanding more into other genres—there are some things on the new album that are a little poppier. But jazz is the core for me, at least jazz harmony and jazz instrumentation. I like to use that and explore other genres.

“Jazz is more expressive, and you can blend it with any other genre; anything is possible in jazz. I can get up and sing a pop tune if I want and add some beautiful harmony, play it with jazz instrumentation so it becomes more interesting.”

Growing up in a musical family on New York’s Long Island, Jane Monheit started performing early:

“The first time I ever sang solo in front of people, I was about eight years old. From the time I was in kindergarten, my school system had us performing and singing real music. I was in my elementary school jazz band playing clarinet.

“There are good public schools there, and the one that I went to had a great jazz department, a great music department and a theater department, everything with the arts. So I had a really intensive education in all that stuff even before I went to college.”

After she was first runner-up in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute Vocal Competition, the 20-year old Monheit quickly caught the ear and eye of industry insiders. Her first album, Never Never Land, was released two years later and she quickly moved to the top tier of young jazz divas. The fact that her album covers and promotional pictures emphasized her good looking sexuality didn’t hurt.

“I love being glamorous and sexy,” she admitted. “What woman wouldn’t? It’s so much fun to dress up. I dress up onstage—I do the high heels and the whole thing. It is so truly me, but at the same time, offstage I’m just as likely to be in jeans and flip-flops and no makeup. And that’s me too. I love to explore the different aspects of my personality through my work. It’s great to be able to be a thousand versions of myself.”

Her repertoire is as wide ranging as her influences, from Irving Berlin to Joni Mitchell, Cole Porter to David Gates of Bread. She’s been called one of the new “saviors of jazz.”

“We’re bringing it to a younger audience,” she explained. “I think young people are more likely to check out the music when they see people their own age out there performing it. Creating a new audience that isn’t going to be gone in ten years is very important.”

She has a new album due out just after her Ella Fest show called Surrender, her first for the Concord label.

“It’s a collection of ballads and bossa nova,” she said. “I’m really deeply involved with Brazilian music; it’s something we’ve been doing for years. And this album features that side of us a lot more. There are some incredible guests out of Brazil—Sergio Mendes and Ivan Lins. It’s my favorite album that I’ve made yet.”

It also includes a version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s pop chestnut, “Moon River.”

“We do a very romantic, classic version of it,” she said, “because that’s the way I like to hear the song. It’s a very romantic song for me and my husband. It has an incredible orchestral chart—it’s me, string orchestra and piano. It’s just lovely.”

With her sixth album due out next week and her 30th birthday coming up later this year, how does Jane Monheit see her music evolving?

“Although I like hip-hop an awful lot,” she said enthusiastically, “I can’t see myself rapping any time soon! I listen to all kinds of stuff, mostly on the radio in the car.

“I can’t just stick to standards and the retro thing, the old fashioned microphone and the red lips—I cannot do that for my whole life or I will die of boredom. There needs to be something else going on. Right now, for us, it’s Brazilian music; we’re digging deeply into that and loving every minute of it. And it’s actually becoming very popular with young people. There are so many genre barriers being broken involving Brazilian music, as many as with jazz. So it’s really interesting to be part of it.”

Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival
Ferguson Center for the Performing Arts

April 18 – CNU Jazz Ensembles with special guest Steve Zegree
April 19 – Bobby McFerrin and Voicestra
April 20 – Jane Monheit and Chris Botti
April 21 – Natalie Cole with Robert Jospe & Inner Rhythm

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.