Jane Monheit: Finding the Way Back Home

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

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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.
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