Swyer Theatre @ The Egg, Albany, NY
December 2, 2006
by J Hunter
Jane Monheit is a cabaret singer. I'm not damning her with faint praise (not yet, anyway): The list of performers who started in the saloons is, to say the least, illustrious (Excerpt: Sinatra, Bennett, Bobby Short, Bette Midler). Monheit paid her dues in the Long Island club scene before beginning her recording career, and one of the zaftig brunette's biggest discs chronicles a live date at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. As such, the intimate Swyer Theatre was an appropriate space for Monheit, and she served up a letter-perfect performance that was quite enjoyable for the near-capacity crowd. For me, though, it was a disappointing end to a great concert season.
From Monheit's snappy opener September in the Rain to her tear-jerking Judy moment encore Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, you got the sense this concert was on rails, and any original, spontaneous moments would happen by accident. This had been billed as a holiday show built around Monheit's 2005 disc The Season (Sony); it wasn't until after her second number - a Fender Rhodes-driven take on the Carpenters' Merry Christmas, Darling - that we found out Christmas music would only be part of the overall set, which would focus on material from Monheit's upcoming CD release. In other words, we were going to get the standard set, despite Monheit's assertion that she'd start singing (Christmas songs) in July if people would let her.
The key phrase in that last sentence is If people would let her. This was a very controlled performance, and I don't mean control in terms of technique. Believe it or not, Monheit's vocal talents are not an issue here. She has a marvelously sultry alto that can make any song seem sexy: It is perfectly suited to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose material and influence made frequent (and welcome) appearances, and Monheit's torch-song treatment of What Are You Doing New Year's Eve had all the couples in the house holding hands.
No, I mean control in terms of the creation and execution of the product, because that's just what Monheit came off like for me: A product, entirely shaped by someone else. Yes, she has a great voice, and her avowed love of Jobim's catalog (which she insists she prefers singing in the original Portugese) seems genuine. The problem comes from the overall sense that every moment of Monheit's performance came out of the mind and pen of keyboardist/arranger Michael Kanan. I've seen some terrific vocalists over the last few years - Cassandra Wilson, Tierney Sutton, our own Sarah Pedinotti - and when you see them perform, you know they're following their own star. I can't say the same about Jane Monheit.
The other thing making me crazy was the poses. There were multiple moments throughout the show (usually during a solo by Kanan or guitarist Miles Okazaki) where Monheit would flip her hair back with her fingers and pause - chin up, eyes closed, as if waiting for the blinding flash of an old-style camera. I saw her strike that pose repeatedly in a concert video I saw on Trio, and it seemed just as contrived there as it did here. Combine that with Monheit's perpetual stance in the crook of the piano - one shoulder up, hip against the instrument, wordlessly announcing This is how jazz singers stand when they're not singing - and I was wishing I was seeing her in a cabaret, so I could call for the check.
Jane Monheit is a polished performer, entirely comfortable with her act as it stands: Kanan is an excellent player and arranger who transferred the Jobim sensibility to a fine cover of Stevie Wonder's Overjoyed, and Okazaki acquitted himself well on both acoustic and electric guitars. But this night was unsatisfying for me on many levels, up to and including the length of the concert. It started late, about 8:10, and Monheit was done with the encore and out of there before 9:30. I guess someone forgot to tell her there was no 11:00 show, and she didn't have to rush off to dinner.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.