Beyond Standard

By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 6, 2009

Even when Jane Monheit was a high school student in the early '90s, her favorite singer was Ella Fitzgerald. Monheit listened to everything from bluegrass to rock, but the music she loved most was jazz and musical theater. When her Nirvana-loving classmates asked, "How can you listen to that stuff?" she replied, "How can you not?" It was her own form of rebellion.

"I was very proud to be different," she declares today. "I grew up on Long Island, where everything is cookie-cutter this and cookie-cutter that, so I was glad to not be like everyone else. To me, listening to standards was the most natural thing in the world. I couldn't understand why my friends didn't."

Monheit, who performs tonight at Rams Head Tavern, once again features standards on her new album, "The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me." This time the titles are associated with Tony Bennett, Jimmy Dorsey, June Christy and Anita O'Day. But more than ever before, the 31-year-old vocalist also sings selections from the post-Elvis era of Anglo-American pop. The disc opens with "Like a Star," the recent hit by British neo-soulster Corinne Bailey Rae, continues through songs associated with Fiona Apple, Paul Simon and Bonnie Raitt, and ends with "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Show."

The last is a tribute to her son, Jack, born in May. The others, though, are an indication that Monheit does, in fact, like songs written after she was born.

"I love standards," she says by phone from New York, "but there's only so far you can go with them, because they've been done so often. By contrast, these newer songs haven't been done in jazz arrangements. I think of them as the Great American Songbook, Volume Two."

Monheit doesn't treat these new standards any differently than she does the older ones. She sings everything with an acoustic jazz combo, either her longtime road trio of husband-drummer Rick Montalbano, bassist Neal Miner and pianist Michael Kanan or an all-star band assembled by arranger-keyboardist Gil Goldstein. Goldstein often adds high-pitched strings (one violin and one viola) and low-pitched reeds (bass clarinet and bass flute) to frame the jazz combo with sumptuous chamber-music touches.

Except for a jaunty version of Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town," the new album has two speeds: slow and slower. In fact, "Slow Like Honey" is not just the title of the Fiona Apple tune on the CD but also a good description of Monheit's vocal technique. The syllables seem to drip reluctantly, sweet and rounded, as if she were savoring each note in the music and each memory of the love affair the lyrics are describing. She says, however, that the ballad-heavy nature of the album was not her idea.

"I recorded a ton of really swinging and really happy stuff," she says, "but the record company didn't want to use it for some reason. I still don't know why." She also says she wanted to make the entire album with her regular band, but Concord Records insisted that she bring in bigger names such as Goldstein, vibist Stefon Harris and guitarist Peter Bernstein.

"If I could, I would record with my road band all the time," she maintains. "Those are the guys I perform with every night; it's like a marriage. It's this thing you build; it becomes more and more comfortable, and you never want to let go of it."

When she sings Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me," accompanied only by pianist Kanan, she delivers the tale of an unexpected new love as a drawn-out swoon of satisfaction. And why not? Every one of her previous non-Christmas studio albums has gone to No. 1 or No. 2 on Billboard's jazz charts.

"I've had a very happy life," she concedes, "filled with a lot of beautiful experiences, and that's what flavors my music. For me, it's not the usual jazz story of the tortured life. It's happy career, happy marriage, happy motherhood. Those experiences inevitably soak into the sound I make."

Not even being a woman in a male-dominated industry has fazed her. She has never hired a music director for her band, because she feels perfectly capable of making those decisions herself. She chooses the instrumentation; she chooses the arrangements; she chooses all the photos. And when the record company demands slower tunes or more-famous players, Monheit chooses which tunes and which players.

"I just don't show up and sing on the tracks," she says. "I'm involved in every aspect of making the records. Otherwise, I'd just be a songbird, and what's the point of that?"

Jane Monheit Appearing tonight at Rams Head Tavern (33 West St., Annapolis). Show starts at 8:30. Tickets: $35; available at 410-268-4545 or The Download: For a sampling of Jane Monheit's music, check out: From "The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me": -- "Like a Star" -- "Slow Like Honey" -- "Lucky to Be Me" -- "Get Out of Town" From "Surrender": -- "Overjoyed" -- "Rio de Maio" From "Come Dream With Me": -- "Over the Rainbow" -- "Blame It on My Youth"

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