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Jane Monheit: Finding the Way Back Home


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Home is very much like our live show, and it is so real, more real than I have ever been. Ever.
Jane Monheit's voice is not a reflection of somebody else's talent: it is all on her. Home (Emarcy, 2010) is her new ticket to the legacy of the Great American Songbook, and her journey has been quite spectacular.

Singing the words or simply scatting, Monheit lays down the pattern for the true vocal jazz tradition with tunes like "This is Always" and "Isn't It a Lovely Day" for those who might have forgotten what romanticism sounded like, back in those days when music was written to thrill dreaming hearts.

Produced for the first time in its entirely by the Long Island-raised singer, the album also features guests including violinist Mark O'Connor), guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli, singer Peter Eldridge, trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and guitarist Frank Vignola, perfectly assembled in a project where Monheit's band—pianist Michael Kanan, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano—and its music is meant to shine just as much as her voice.

Home is a sweet and spontaneous record; an album made to welcome Monheit back to the vocal jazz home where she rightfully belongs.

All About Jazz: The first time I heard your voice on the radio, the radio presenter was saying "This is Jane Monheit, who is not everybody's favorite." I turned the volume up and listened, and I remember wondering "Why isn't she?" Up until this day I still do not know why that radio person said that.

Jane Monheit: Well, everybody's got their opinion, especially people who have a certain position. There are an awful lot of people who feel that they can be judges of the music, but because they are not musicians themselves, us musicians don't really take their opinion seriously at all [Laughs]. We care much more about what our fellow musicians think about what we do, and what audiences think about what we do. Critics? Ah, well...not so much. We're kinda like "Whatever!" Unless, you know, it's one of the great, great critics who really, really understands music. But you know what, my song got played, so I win! [Laughs].

AAJ: So, it's been 10 years; do you ever think of those first days?

JM: Well, it's kinda just a blur. I mean, I remember the beginning very clearly, but then after that it was just crazy. I was on the road all the time, I was never home. Playing shows and doing press, and it was pure insanity. And then exactly three years ago I got pregnant, and that just calmed everything way down. I was like "Okay, we're doing this now for a minute," but I never stopped working. I worked through my whole pregnancy, and was back on the road when my son was three months old, but I had to slow it down because it was just seven years of absolutely nonstop insanity. It was awesome. You know, your 20s is the time to do that, it was perfect timing in my life. Everything started when I was 20, and then I got pregnant when I was 29. So it was just a good, solid time of hard core performing and promotion. And then I had to sort of make executive decisions, to take a little more time for family. To start one [laughs].

AAJ: Has it been an easy road?

JM: When you compare it to a whole lot of other stories, it's been easy. I've been very lucky. Of course I've dealt with critics that have said all kinds of things, and there's been so much garbage always about how I look, and that has always bothered me. But other than that, it's been amazing! I've been privileged to work with incredible musicians, I've been in the studio with amazing people, I've traveled all over the world, made the most beautiful venues on the planet, and I could not possibly be luckier. It's been truly amazing. And I got to do all of it with my husband; I mean, I travel the world with my family for a living.

AAJ: Let me go back to the way you look. I don't pay attention to things that have nothing to do with music, so I really don't know what's been said.

JM: Well, that's awesome[laughs]. That's the way it should be. I mean, it's one thing in pop music, where the image is a big, big part of the sale. I mean it's just part of the point. We love to look at the beautiful pop stars, to watch them dance. We love the entire package. It's what makes it fun; look at Lady Gaga,

I'm a huge fan. But what she's done visually is perhaps the strength of her career, and what made her who she is today, with these incredible visuals she provides us with. And I love her music, too. I am never at the gym without Gaga. But in jazz, I feel like that shouldn't necessarily be a part of the equation unless the artist really chooses for it to be. And in my case, that was really decided for me. Although how can't it be part of it when I think about it. When my first record came out I was 22—and I am a glamour girl. I love the makeup, and the dresses and the jewelry, the whole thing. I love that stuff.

So, of course, it was going to become a part of the whole thing. But it became way too important, to the point where everybody talked about it too much, and honestly the constant, and I mean constant criticism about it has just been ridiculous! I'm sorry, but I believe that I'm a good enough musician that does not matter whether I weight 100 pounds or 500. Of course, I've never weighted either one of those things, and never will, but you know what I mean. It's ridiculous how much that's come into play. And great reviewers and respected writers have open their pieces with "well, if Jane hadn't looked so fat, maybe I could have heard her music," and that kind of stuff. If I were a man, that wouldn't have been written; and if I would have been an instrumentalist, it wouldn't have been written either.

There's a lot of talk about it. You can type my name on Google and a lot of that stuff will come out. And you know what, honestly, it doesn't even bother me anymore. I think I got past the point when it was bothering me. I know a lot of women listen to my music, and I'm just like them. I am a different size every day. My closet probably has four sizes in it, you know what I mean? I'm just like the rest. I'm just like everybody else, and that's a cool thing. I like that about myself. I haven't succumbed to the industry standards of being just like impossible, miserable, starving all the time. I go to the gym almost every day and I eat really healthy, and I do those things so that I can a strong, healthy, happy mother. And honestly, no matter what size I am, and it changes all the time, I always feel amazing about myself. I really do. I'm a very confident person, for better or for worse, and I hope I can teach that to my son. I hope I can inspire as much confidence in him as my parents did in me, which doesn't look like it's going to be a problem, let me tell you [laughs].

AAJ: What's the difference between the Jane of Never Never Land (N-Coded Music, 2000) and the Jane of Home?

Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli

JM: Well, musically, not a lot, because I have always known who I am, I have been very sure of that since I was a little kid. But then there are a lot of sides to me, and I accepted that, and I think it's probably a big part of who I am as a musician. I mean, if anything my lyrical interpretation has gained a lot of maturity; how could it not? I have aged 12 years. Ten years since my first record came out. So I gained a ton of maturity, and since then I've become a wife and mother and been around the world 700 times. I've gone through a lot of life experiences, both positive and negative, mostly positive, which I'm really grateful for. But other than that, I'm really the same, and that's why this record is so important to me because it's really a return to those roots, to let people know that's really still who I am, the jazz singer at the core.

My live show is still like those records. It's not like the records I've made since then, which I love them, the big orchestral, big sort of fantasy that I made; I do, I love them. But it's not what we do best, because who can recreate that, unless you are like a pop star? You can't do it. So I wanted to make a record about who we really are and what we really do, my band and me. And the record is very much like our live show, and it is so real, more real than I have ever been. Ever. And I'm so ready for that. I would go back to the fantastical thing again, I would do that again because I loved doing it, and the high glamour and the whole thing, because it's a big a part of who I am. But it was time right now to do something very real and natural.

AAJ: It feels like you have been singing forever, basically.

JM: Yes, I have always sung, since I could talk. I've never not done it.

AAJ: I know in your home, growing up, there was bluegrass and folk music. How did jazz happen to you?

JM: Well, it came down on my mother's side. My mom's parents, with whom I'm still very, very close with today, are like the biggest jazz lovers in the universe, and they lived 20 minutes from my parents, so I spent a lot of time with them growing up. They helped raise me, and they are still so important to me. Every time I make a record I'm thinking about them, especially with this record, Home. This record is really for them in a lot of ways. It was all the old records they played, the old stuff, all the great singers, the big bands...and my mother really loved that music, too.

So I heard it at home. I mean, my mother was the first one that sat me down and played Ella Fitzgerald, and said, "You need to know this." And I'll never forget it as long as I live. I remember I was in the house, it was winter, there was a fire lit in the fireplace, I'll never forget, and just thinking, "Oh my God!" And my first thought when hearing that voice was, "She must be the most beautiful woman in the entire world." I was just a little kid, and that was my thought, that she must be the most beautiful woman that ever lived. And she was, in so many ways. She really was.

AAJ: So would Ella be maybe the main influence you've had as a vocalist?

JM: Definitely my biggest influence when I'm singing jazz. But also Sarah Vaughan, huge influence. Carmen McRae, Mel Torme...I mean a lot of people. A little Frank Sinatra, because who doesn't have a little Frank Sinatra here and there? Everybody learns a little bit about phrasing from Sinatra. But the thing is that, now that all the different sort of facets of my musicianship have really sort of come together, you hear the influences from other genres of music when I'm singing jazz. There's always a musical influence there. These songs were written as show tunes, almost all of them. They were written for musicals or musical films.

The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers...These are the writers of the Great American Songbook, and their songs were show tunes and pop hits at the same time. Everything was wrapped together. So that's kind of the way I approach the music in some cases, it depends on the tune. Like if you look at the new record, "I'll Be Around" is one of the big ballads on that record, and I'm really embracing the musical theater side of myself more when I'm singing that song, or "While We're Young," another great example of that. We also take on something like "A Shine on Your Shoes," which is from The Band Wagon (1953)," my favorite movie musical of all time. And it's really dazzling. So it depends on the tune.

AAJ: What makes a standard a standard to you? There are old and new ones on this album.

JM: Well, for me, standards are just these tunes that are popular now as they were when they were written, 50 or 60 years ago. They have been played by everyone, and they have been universally loved. A tune that everybody knows, even people who don't know jazz. Everybody knows "I Got Rhythm"; everybody knows "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." To me, what make a standard a standard is the way they have been and are loved and played over the years; these tunes have been played billions of times all over the world by all different kinds of musicians. That's a standard. And then there are so many tunes that I think will be the standards of tomorrow. Look at those Stevie Wonder tunes, The Beatles, that people just cover again and again because they're magic. These are the new standards.

AAJ: Why do you think this album happened now?

JM: Well, you know, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I think the main reason is because of my band. Because right now, that has changed a lot over the years; everybody that has been with me over the years, all of these men (I have never had a female sidemen before, actually, which is weird...although I'm such an alpha female, I do like being surrounded by the boys; you can say I'm just a big nine-year-old boy), they are just my brothers, and every single one of them has been over the years, from the first band until now. But right now it's really the perfect thing for me, musically. My pianist and my drummer, Rick Montalbano, the three of us have been together almost from the beginning. My husband Rick and I have played together since the day we met; I've never barely played with anyone else since I met him, because we're just the perfect musical match, just perfect. It has nothing to do with the fact that we are married. If we hated each other we still would have played together nonstop since then, because it's too great. Nothing would get in the way of that. And my pianist, Michael Kanan, and I have a really special bond, which is why we do a duet on every single album and in every show; it's a really special thing.

But our bassist, Neal Miner, came to us a little over three years ago, and it really completed us. Because I have had a lot of incredible bass players over the years, but you can put a lot of amazing musicians together and it doesn't always click. Or it does, and then you sort of change over the years and you want a different kind of click after that. And that's kind of where it's been. I've got a lot of great bands, but the idea of what I wanted sort of changed. But anyway, right now is so beautiful playing with these guys, and because of the style of all of our playing leaned back towards playing standards. For a while it had been when we played tons of Brazilian stuff and tons of pop music, and that was amazing too, but that was that time, and this is now. So this record is really inspired by my band, and because this part of me has never gone away and I haven't done it in a while. This is what I want.

AAJ: What is Home? If you had to present your album to anybody that never heard it before, what would you say Home is?

JM: It's a classic vocal jazz album, in a lot of ways. But then there are elements of it that really make it me. The fact that there is like a random non-standard on there is only smoke, that leans a little bit more to like a pop thing. Totally random. The fact that there's a couple of tunes that have big musical theater influence in them is totally random, and that's what makes it me. It's because as much as I want to make a record, one thing from beginning to end, totally homogenized and everything that sells well, and what the public likes, I can't do it, I have to throw in there the weird stuff. I can't not do it.

AAJ: What can you say about the track selection?

JM: They are just everything I loved at the time. I've always chosen all my songs since the very beginning, and it's always just what I'm into at that moment. It's that simple, it's never hard to choose songs. And if it were, there's something wrong. If it was impossible to think of what I wanted to sing then it would not be time to make a record. You have to do it when you are ready, and likely I'm ready pretty frequently. I'm already thinking of what I want to do on the next one [laughs].

AAJ: It sounds like a non-stop process.

JM: Oh, yes, it really is.

AAJ: Do you ever have time to sit back and enjoy what you just did?

JM: Not really. I did before I had a two-year old; now there isn't time to sit back and do anything because he's a wild man.

AAJ: The first song I heard from this album, that I actually was really curious about, was "This is Always," because I loved Irene Kral's version of it, and it is one of my favorite songs.

JM: Me, too, that's my favorite one. That whole record with Junior Mance [Better Than Anything (Fresh Sound, 1963)], I love that record. Actually, I recorded that for my third album, In the Sun (N-Coded Music, 2002), and I was going to title the album This is Always. But then I didn't want to use it, because it just wasn't exactly what I wanted, and I am glad I waited, because now this arrangement that Neal Miner, my bassist, did for the tune, is so amazing. One of the reasons why I wanted to do it—and this is what I talk about live, when I do the tune—is that one thing I hear from people, constantly, I am not kidding you, is that people have used songs we have recorded to be the first dance at their wedding, or they walked down the aisle to it. Things that we have recorded have been featured on a lot of people's weddings, which is something I am so proud of. It's amazing that your music can be part of something that's so important to someone.

It's like I said before: it doesn't matter, you can take four geniuses and put them together and it won't make a very good band at all. So it was really important to me to make this record this way. It's part of the reason why it's called Home. Another thing is that people really responded to the music Mark and I did together and just the one thing I did with John Pizzarelli for Legends of Jazz, people talk to me about it all the time. And the work I have done with Frank Vignola, too, and I have no words for him; I love that man. He is just so brilliant. It was important to me to revive these music relationships and do something else, keep it going.

AAJ: What do you have to say about "Tonight You Belong to Me"?

JM: I love that song. The Jerk (1979) is, like, one of the best movies ever, with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. It's awesome. I love them. She is one of my actual influences on any kind of singing ever. I worship the ground that woman walks on, she is like my queen. I love her so much. I met her once, and probably acted like such an idiot and melted into the floor because I was like dying. But I love their version of that song, it's an adorable piece of music, and I've always kinda wanted to do it, and I just realized how perfect it would be with John [Pizzarelli], because he sings in this way that is so incredibly sincere and just warm-hearted and beautiful. John never sings a word that you don't believe. It's like this natural, laid back, beautiful thing. And what could be more perfect for that tune?

AAJ: Jane, the producer?

JM: Sometimes it's really amazing to work with a producer, if you really love that person's work, and you want their vision to be a part of your vision. Sometimes you come together with someone and make something bigger than you could have made on your own. And that's wonderful when that happens. But you know when it's yours and you don't need anyone to help you with that. You know when it's you. And this one was on me. And I will produce on my own again and I will produce with other people again, but I will never not be involved in the production at all. I will always at least co-produce. Nobody ever produced my vocals for me, nobody ever chose the songs for me, I have always done all of that on my own.

So it's important to me. I have to have control, I must. And I almost always had, with the exception that I was never allowed to have my band play on my records, which has infuriated me for 10 years. So the times when they did play were very important to me, and never again will let anybody tell me that I can't do what I want to do because I'm smart enough to know now that I can close my mouth and not sing. But not that I would ever have to, because I have made enough records so I am not like a baby that they don't trust.

AAJ: Melody Gardot recently described her voice like "a horn." How about you?

JM: I can hardly put that into words. It's just who I am. It's hard to clearly describe yourself, but what I can say about my improvisation is that I am not one of those singers who go for a very instrumental sound when improvising. It's just really natural for me and it's just the regular way that I sing, and I most of the time choose to improvise using lyric and creating melody that I can feel better illustrates the song. I like scatting too, but I don't do it as much as I do the other thing. But I can't really describe my voice.

AAJ: You are a mother, singer and woman. Is there a line that separates them?

JM: Everything informs everything else. My job, working, makes me love being a mother more, and certainly being a mother makes me love my job more. I have never loved my work as much as I do now. Because I was naïve and I was young and I found problems with everything, always. I'm a dark person. I tend toward the dark side of things, always, always, and you can hear it in my music, especially in the middle years, with so many dark ballads and sad songs and things like that. But everything is different now, having these two sides of my life, motherhood and career woman. Doing both things makes each thing mean more. It really does.

AAJ: Where does your inspiration come from? What makes you want to sing a song?

JM: I don't even know. All I know is that if I can't, I'm so horribly depressed. When I lose my voice I'm just like a shadow of a person. I'm so depressed it's unbelievable. And when I'm singing I'm really happy, even when I'm singing something that makes me cry, which happens a lot. I cry a lot when singing, because it's a really emotional experience, it's very cathartic. Still makes me incredibly happy to sing. So not being able to sing, losing my voice, it's just deeply, deeply depressing.

AAJ: What makes life worthwhile for you?

JM: My son and music, and the love in my life, the beautiful family and friends that I have. And my animals! My two cats and a dog, and they are amazing. I'm a big time animal person.

AAJ: Do you ever think about the future?

JM: Oh yes, there are a bunch of things that I really want, like big dreams. I want to make a big band record; I have no idea when I'll do that, but I really want to do it. I have always wanted to, and I will do it, someday! I just don't know when. And I really want to do musical theater again. I did some community theater when I was young and I really miss it. I have been "this close" to Broadway, so hopefully it will happen at some point, because I love musical theater, to the point that I don't like to listen to the records or go to the theater barely anymore, because it makes me sad. So I really want to have that back.

AAJ: How would you like for people to feel about your music 80 years from now?

JM: I just want to be a singer that mattered, that influenced those that came after me. Although, you know what? I can already say that that's true, because I have been able to make my family proud, and that's the most wonderful thing in the world.

Selected Discography

Jane Monheit, Home (Emarcy, 2010)

Jane Monheit, The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me (Concord, 2009)

Jane Monheit, Surrender (Concord, 2007)

Jane Monheit, The Season (Sony, 2005)

Jane Monheit, Taking a Chance on Love (Sony, 2004)

Jane Monheit, In the Sun (N-Coded Music, 2002)

Jane Monheit, Come Dream with Me (N-Coded Music, 2001)

Jane Monheit, Never Never Land (N-Coded Music, 2000)

Jane Monheit, Live at the Rainbow Room (N-Coded Music, 2000)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Bill King

Pages 2, 3: Kristophe Diaz

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