There are probably some veteran jazz vocalists tearing their hair out over the fact that Jane Monheit, 22 years old with one album to her credit, has already played a week at the Village Vanguard. Jazz singers are hot right now, but in our image-conscious, youth-oriented culture, it’s no surprise that the prominent ones tend to be young and pretty. So one is entitled to some surface skepticism, and Monheit probably knows this. When she hit the bandstand and began singing "Please Be Kind," the first track from her debut CD Never Never Land (N-Coded), the lyrics seemed to take on a new meaning: "This is my first affair, so please be kind...." It was as if the somewhat green performer were asking the tough New York audience to go easy on her. Paving the way toward acceptance was her stellar band — Bruce Barth on piano, Frank Wess on tenor and alto, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. But while these great musicians helped Monheit shine, they did not have to carry her. She stood on her own two feet, poised and articulate, and sang her heart out. Monheit chose many songs from the record, including "Dindi," "My Foolish Heart," "I Got It Bad," "Save Your Love for Me," and "More Than You Know." For the most part, she stuck close to her studio performances and didn’t take a great many risks, but the results were deeply moving all the same. There were also some new surprises: a beautiful rendition of "I Love You, Porgy," as well as "I Wish You Love," the song that initially won her the attention of producer Joel Dorn (who was in the audience). What comes through in Monheit’s show, besides the fact that she can really sing, is that she cares deeply about these songs and the singers who made them classics. There were critical comments from audience members after the set about Monheit’s use of sex appeal to sell every song, and there’s some truth to that. With her long black dress and flowing hair, her cherubic face, and her arms and eyelids aglow in glitter, Monheit is easy on the eyes. But it can be argued that this is part and parcel of good stage presence, recalling notions of glamour from an earlier age of entertainment. Indeed, there’s something of the 40s showgirl in Monheit. She’ll likely evolve into a more tested, world-wise performer, but she’s off to a fantastic start.
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