LIVE: Jane Monheit @ The Egg, 11/11/2021
What jazz singer hasn’t tackled timeless classics “Lush Life,” “My Funny Valentine,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?
Jane Monheit sang all these and other chestnuts from what Tony Bennett calls the Great American Songbook Thursday at The Egg.
In a technically brilliant but also emotionally intimate 90 minutes on the Swyer Theatre stage, she combined several main musical sources, rivers flowing into the same sea of song.
Now 44, she said she had to wait until “I was finally mature enough to sing” some songs. She offered this explanation between a fervent “When a Woman Loves a Man” and a playfully inviting “Let’s Take A Walk Around the Park.” She sang both on “Come What May,” which she said Thursday is her pandemic album, on which a yearning for travel shaped the song choices. However, she also acknowledged a yen to revisit songs from her prior 10 releases, and did.
Disclaimers aside, the result was seamless. Emotionally she reached from playful delight in the bounce of uptempo tunes including her brisk opener “I Believe in You” to the drama of exposed feelings when she claimed the ballads “Lush Life,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as her own.
In black dress and heels, she sometimes leaned on (masked) Michael Kanan’s piano but more often ruled the place from center stage, tossing her thick hair, gesturing, giving motion to the emotion. Bassist Neal Miner stood behind her, playing deep in the pocket, with drummer Joe Strasser behind a red kit, stage left. None of the three even unbuttoned their dark suit jackets, over white shirts, skinny ties. But they swung with a practiced ease, only three shows into a short tour. Like their outfits, real elegance never goes out of style, and elegance was the flavor they served up all night.
Tackling timeless tunes that everybody else has done takes deep confidence in your instrument and Monheit has good reason to trust hers; a lovely tone, range from whisper to brassy belt and both convincing investment in a lyric and fluent freedom when she skats.
Skatting started early, in her opening “I Believe in You” where she also encouraged applause for Kanan’s first piano solo of the night by simply pointing at him. Longtime accompanist of the late, great singer Jimmy Scott, Kanan was aces, first among equals in precise trio arrangements.
The bluesy “When a Woman Loves a Man” had a stop-and-go cadence and Monheit surfed on those waves, bending notes like a slide guitar, crooning a big finish. “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Park” walked on Miner’s bass line, which set up another tasty Kanan piano break before Monheit sang a coda that crooned from soft skat to bold belting.
Sergio Mendes’s “So Many Stars” was more Bossa-adjacent than the more spirited Jobim tunes later in the show. Monheit’s affection for Brazilian melodies glowed in a humming interlude mid-song, then a slow, soft chord to close; she later said she’d borrowed this from “Star Trek.”
Noting her parents were present, she explained she’d had to wait before tackling “Lush Life,” then gave Strayhorn’s neon-through-the-rain meditation a dramatic reading only about one tear this side of over-the-top. You could feel the crowd glide into the feeling as she crooned, “I was wrong…again…”
A jaunty “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” lightened the mood as Monheit skat-sang in the song’s seams.
Next came Jobim’s travelogue “Samba Do Avaio” – “Samba for an Airplane,” which she’d said in a pre-concert phone interview is her favorite song to sing from her new “Come What May” album. This had a spry Bossa beat that engaged her feet along with her voice. She quipped that if her rendition of the Portuguese lyrics sounded different from other singers’, it was because she was getting it right.
After this airy samba, her voice took on the late-night seductiveness of a muted trumpet in the slow, torchy “The Nearness of You,” then it gathered emotional force as she skatted in the verses rather than the chorus.
The show’s only gaffe – brief, minor and funny – came in “On the Sunny Side of the Street” as Strasser’s drums burst too early into the bass-and-vocal-only intro, gesturing his apology as Monheit laughed. Then he conspicuously counted in his actual entrance on his fingers; which he repeated in the swinging “Get Happy.” This impromptu addition, not on the setlist, seemed to make the band happy, too.
Rather than Judy Garland’s brassy power, Monheit chose a cozy, whispery but still swinging run through “The Man That Got Away,” graced by a sparkling piano break.
The set-list specified “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” would be played without a chart, and Monheit jumped deep into this just-wing-it spirit, freelancing and skatting all over the tune as it built, then faded. Miner took his only full solo of the night here: agile, tasty and smart. Like Kanan, Miner has a deft, sensitive touch in backing singers after accompanying Jon Hendricks, then Annie Ross. While Strasser has played mainly with horn and guitar players, he showed the same restraint as Kanan and Miner, with brilliantly tasteful brushwork.
Introducing “My Funny Valentine” as the song everyone hates – it’s overdone and often badly done – Monheit sang with just Kanan’s piano as she did earlier in “Lush Life” to similarly (almost overly) dramatic effect. She held notes forever, she skat-sang, she hummed, she made big notes enormous and turned the tune and herself inside out.
She just had to lighten up after that, into the airy bossa of Jobim’s “The Waters of March,” a staccato list of earthly delights that flowed in waves. A similar energy drove her closer, “From this Moment On” with a stop-and-go push and big applause for a dazzling skat run.
Her encore of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with just Kanan’s piano found her as emotive as in “Lush Life” and “My Funny Valentine.”
Those old ballads really get to her, so they really got to us.
The Egg’s crew ably managed this three-show night, comedy sets by Theo Von in the larger Hart Theatre at 7 and 9 p.m. bookending Monheit’s 7:30 show in the Swyer.