Juilliard Jazz continues its 10th-anniversary celebration with something new: on October 25, Grammy-nominated Jane Monheit will be the first vocalist to appear in a full-length concert with the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra. This concert, called the “Great American Songbook,” will be conducted by alum and new faculty member James Burton III (see "Welcoming New Faculty"). Monheit will also work with students during her three-day residency at Juilliard.
At 33, Monheit has distinguished herself as a dynamic jazz singer whose prolific recording career began in 2000 with the release of Never Never Land, which remained on the Billboard jazz charts for more than a year. The next year, at 23, she appeared at the quintessential New York jazz venue the Village Vanguard backed by a quartet featuring drummer Carl Allen, now the artistic director of Juilliard Jazz, and bassist Christian McBride, a Juilliard Jazz artist-in-residence. “Carl did a week with me when I was just a kid and I was way too young to be playing that club,” Monheit reminisced in a recent interview with The Journal. “I was overwhelmed at how lucky I was and [by] the guys I was playing with—it was an unforgettable thing. So it’s really nice that he called me for this.” Allen returns the compliment predicting that Monheit “is destined to be one of the premier jazz vocalists of our time. Her style is a blend of cabaret and swing; but whatever she sings, it’s swingin’. I’m very much looking forward to having her work and perform with our students.”
Monheit chose jazz standards for her latest album, Home, and for her upcoming appearance with the J.J.O. because they are “the core of what I do. The beauty of the Great American Songbook is that it can go in so many directions and be interpreted so many ways.” And while she works most frequently with her trio, Monheit says that performing with big bands and orchestras is her favorite thing. When singing big-band arrangements, she said, “I tend to sing a little more melody. Big-band charts often have a lot going on, so I like to look at the score and make sure I’m landing with the big hits and not getting in the way. When I’m with my trio, I just openly interpret and they’re behind me, providing accompaniment around my choices. When I’m with a big band, I’m providing vocals around what already exists, so it’s a little different.”
Prior to Home, Monheit’s albums were a mixed bag of genres—pop, cabaret, Broadway and jazz—and she thought it was “time to make a record that just sort of settled down and did one thing.” There is one tune on the album, “It’s Only Smoke” by Larry Goldings and Cliff Goldmacher, that’s not a standard; “but it was just killin’,” she said, so she and the band recorded it.
Home is the first album on which Monheit was the sole producer. Her earliest recordings were produced by industry notable Joel Dorn who “had me right there making every decision with him. He had me put together my own vocals. He was going to teach me how to do it, and that was amazing,” she said. “You have to have a hand in your record making because an album is like a photograph of you. You want to approve it before the whole world is looking.”
In her own work, Monheit is influenced by the great jazz artists as well as contemporary singers like Bonnie Raitt and Bernadette Peters, whom she described as having “this stunning vibrato and a really emotional delivery.” Monheit, who has moved away from an earlier tendency toward what she calls vocal gymnastics, stresses the importance of singing the melody, something she said Judy Garland and Bernadette Peters do in a way “that is incredibly emotionally effective—and they don’t need to get outside of the melody to give you that.” Iconic jazz composer and pianist Bill Evans and legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim are also major influences on how she constructs counter melodies.
Hearing standards played out of tempo or interpreted in a manner that disregards the meaning of the lyrics bothers Monheit, who feels that the entire composition and the intention with which it was written are essential in interpreting a tune. What does she hope the Juilliard Jazz instrumentalists will learn from working with a singer? “The words are important.”
Even though Monheit is enjoying a high-profile career, she offered advice gleaned from her own discouraging moments in the music and recording business: “You’re grateful for every gig, you just love every minute of it, and you kind of hope for the best!”