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Interviews

Jane Monheit: Surrender Brings Victory

By Published: July 3, 2007

Some really good voices have come out of American Idol. On the other hand, I dont know how much I can get behind it when there are so many musicians busting their butts that didnt get that kind of chance.

Jane MonheitWhen an artist breaks through and achieves the chart-topping success that Jane Monheit has with Surrender (Concord, 2007), it's easy to make the assumption that it came as a result of radio airplay, an aggressive publicity campaign and a big dose of good luck. What's forgotten is how many one-night stands in half-filled clubs you have to endure before the gravy train pulls in. Not quite yet thirty years old, Monheit is an experienced and exciting artist who belongs in any serious conversation regarding who are the premier vocalists in jazz today.

All About Jazz: Can you tell me how you chose the title track, "Surrender."

Jane Monheit: That song is actually one of the first new songs I've recorded and it was written by Peter Eldridge of the New York Voices. He is a very close friend of mine and was my voice teacher in college. He recorded it on one of his solo albums. He does a singer/songwriter project on the side of the Voices, and I just loved the song and wanted to record it. Luckily, it fit right into what I wanted to do on this album which is basically tunes from the Sixties forward to ballads and bossa nova. It fit right in there, which is great.

AAJ: Does it require a certain amount of musical maturity to sing songs as classic as "Moon River ?

JM: Absolutely. For me it's not so much about age as it is life experience and going through the difficult things these songs talk about. It's about being in a situation or a life experience to extrapolate enough to know what that would feel like. I'm not out there singing "Sophisticated Lady and "Lush Life because I haven't lived that yet. I can sing songs about heartbreak and things like that because my happiness and my love for my husband [drummer Rick Montalbano] makes me realize what it would be like if I lost it. There are some ways you can stretch and some ways you can't. It depends upon what's truthful for you.

AAJ: It's an unexpected transition on Surrender to move directly from Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer and "Moon River to Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed. That's one of Stevie's great underrated songs. Why did you choose to do it and how did it fit into the theme of the album?

JM: "Overjoyed is one of the very first tunes I picked for this album. In fact, it's something we've been playing in the band for about a year. It's an arrangement by Miles Okazaki, my guitarist, that I asked him to do because we all love Stevie. We also play a lot of Brazilian tunes and it's these things that are how the concept of the album developed. The tunes came first and the concept came later.



It wasn't like I sat down and said, "All right, let's collect a bunch of tunes like this because this is what I want to do. It had been developing as part of the live show for some time, so it happened really naturally.

We'll sit down with the record company and say, "These are the songs I'm really feeling right now and here are some ideas for a concept. Then we'll flesh it out. On this album we didn't have a full album's worth of songs. We recorded fourteeen tunes because there are a lot of bonus tracks out there including different versions of the album for Target and Borders. The producer [Jorge Calandrelli] and I sat down and talked about songs. I was able to pick a few more I really loved and they went beautifully with the ones I already had.

Pretty much anything that works live I think is worth putting down on record. There are a few songs I've recorded that I've never sung live, but I very rarely go into the studio and record something I haven't done live before.

AAJ: When you're singing a song in Portuguese, such as "So Tinha De Ser Com Voce, do you have to deliver it with greater emotion because many listeners don't understand the lyrics?

JM: I try to always deliver the lyrics in an emotional way, so I don't really think about that too much. It just comes naturally. I'm more focused, when I'm singing that stuff, on getting the phrasing and just enjoying the language and the place it takes me with the music rather than worrying about people not understanding what the lyrics mean. Most people don't care. They like the song anyway and get the vibe.

AAJ: Is there a difference between the records and the live shows and the expectations someone has when they sit down in a concert hall and you step up to the microphone?

JM: If it's someone who's seen us live before, when they come to the show they will see it as part of a natural progression. If it's someone who hasn't seen us live they may be a little more surprised by some of the content just because it's different from the album. Basically, Surrender reflects where our live shows have been developing. People who have come to see us before will understand totally where it's coming from.

AAJ: Is it time to open up The Great American Songbook to include, along with Gershwin, Porter and Mancini, the works of Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Stevie Wonder and others?

JM: I think there's plenty of room. I always think of The Great American Songbook as Volume One and Volume Two and this album comes out of Volume Two.

AAJ: What's your favorite song on Surrender?

JM: I really love the way the whole album came out, but if I had to pick a favorite I'd probably pick "Overjoyed, with "Caminhos Cruzados a close second. If I had to pick one tune that I would want to skip ahead and listen to it's "Overjoyed.

AAJ: Let's say you could do a duet with anyone living now and any artist that has passed away. Who would you choose?

JM: I'd like to do something with Take 6. That would be amazing. As for someone who's not around...why, Frank Sinatra! That would be like the swinginest. That would be a total lesson in swinging. We'd have a nice drink afterward and I'd get to hang out with Frank and The Rat Pack. That would be fabulous.

AAJ: Reading from your Wikipedia entry, in the first paragraph it says, "Jane Monheit is considered by some to be one of the most promising American jazz vocalists of her generation, and by others to be more of a cabaret/Broadway style singer and not really a jazz singer at all. What's your reaction to that?

JM: I really can fit into both categories though I don't do cabaret shows. I used to dabble in it because it was kind of required for a New York singer. There's a lot of great clubs you can't play if you're not doing that but honestly, when I play those clubs now, we're playing jazz.

A lot of people say I'm a pop singer too, in the traditional sense. All of these are just facets of my musical personality. I grew up on bluegrass and I can sing that stuff too. I'm just a singer and I write good songs and I'm deeply influenced by jazz and I chose to start out with the Great American Songbook because that's what I was feeling at the time.

That's always going to be the case for me, but there's so much more out there. If I had to do just one thing forever I would probably pass out from boredom.

AAJ: Let's kick the can down the road five years from now. The year is 2012. What is Jane Monheit going to sound like then?

JM: I just want to cover the spectrum. All of my albums will have a core in jazz. There will be albums that are really traditional and albums that are more Brazilian-themed or Broadway or with a folk edge to them. I'm sure I'll be doing all kinds of things. I just can't imagine what path they'll take. I tend to go through these obsessions where it's just one thing for a long time and right now it's been Brazilian music for a couple of years. I see no end in sight and we'll see what comes next.

AAJ: Are you thinking you might want to record an entire album of Brazilian music?

JM: Oh, absolutely. But when I do it there's a certain way I want to do it. I want to go down to Rio and record there. Possibly do it live. Do a lot more in Portuguese and record it with a lot of musicians I know down there.

I'm going to wait until the time is right and really do it the right way.

AAJ: Do you speak Portuguese?

JM: I don't yet. I obviously understand a lot of it from singing the language. I understand a lot of it written, but I can't hold a conversation with someone yet. I just bought a program to learn it so I'm going to be working on that while I'm on the road. I meet so many people from Brazil now at the shows and I can't talk to them.

AAJ: In season five of American Idol, the runner-up, Katherine McPhee did a version of "Over the Rainbow, using your version of the introduction. Were you flattered by that and as a singer what do you think of a show like Idol?

Jane Monheit<JM: There have been some really good voices to come out of American Idol. I'm a big fan of Kelly Clarkson. The girl can sing. No question about it. She's got an amazing instrument. But I don't watch the show. When the thing happened with Katherine McPhee everybody and their mother came out of the woodwork to tell me about it. I guess she didn't announce on the show that it was mine and there was a huge ruckus. "Oh, she's doing your arrangement. Whatever. It was a whole thing. But honestly I didn't pay much attention to it because I don't watch the show.

I guess it's a good thing for helping some really genuinely talented kids to get out there in the world where it's impossible to get started. On the other hand, I don't know how much I can get behind it when there are so many incredibly hard-working musicians busting their butts that didn't get that kind of chance. It's a weird thing.

AAJ: On the outside chance you were invited to be a celebrity judge on American Idol what would be your advice to the aspiring singers?

JM: I'd tell them to learn music if they didn't already. Don't sing by ear and don't let their pianist do it for them. Learn music and have the same exact knowledge as all the instrumentalists have. You need it. It's absolutely necessary and there are so many singers who don't operate from that place. I don't understand how they're making it. Whenever people ask me for advice for singers that's the first thing that I say.




Selected Discography

Jane Monheit, Surrender (Concord Music Group, 2007)
Jane Monheit, The Season (Epic, 2005)
Jane Monheit, Taking A Chance on Love (Sony, 2004)
Jane Monheit, In the Sun (N2K, 2002)
Jane Monheit, Come Dream With Me (N-Coded, 2001)
Jane Monheit, Never Never Land (N-Coded, 2000)

Photo Credit
Randee St. Nicholas



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