Monheit Madness? Frank & Joe Steal the Show

R.J. DeLuke By

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(Monheit's) best number of all was when she joined Frank & Joe for 'Besame Mucho' which she performs on the group's 33 1/3 album
There is a star belonging to vocalist Jane Monheit that some people are waiting to see rise in the jazz world, she of the glamour-girl magazine covers (A recent Downbeat issue, for example). It might be best for these people to settle in comfortably with a vat of strong coffee, perhaps.
There is a the sea of "jazz singers," both in the United States and abroad and many of them are very talented, yet lacking that big break. We may hear more from some, and less from others. Some of that will be for the better and some for the worse. But Monheit already has a strong promotion behind her. Her talent, though, is lacking. Still in her 20s, perhaps it's a skill she will hone in the coming years if she has the right stuff.
At a concert at The Egg in Albany, NY, on Nov. 20, Monheit showed she is a singer more given to cabaret style than jazz, though she does try to swing and she has a desire to play with the melody and dynamics of a song as all fine jazz singers do. Sometimes she over-tries, to the point of being cloying. She doesn't have the instrument yet to get by on voice alone and her attempts at improvisation are often too forced or just lacking.
In fact, at The Egg, the warm-up band, the Frank & Joe Show, led by the fleet guitarist Frank Vignola and the lightning hands of drummer Joe Ascione, stole the show. The band had just finished a 40-city U.S. tour and was even more crisp and even tighter than a show they did in Albany earlier in the year . The band cooks! And the music is as fun as ever.

Monheit's music isn't particularly pleasing and it was evident from the start with a mildly swinging version of "Taking A Chance on Love." By the time her over-dramatic version of "In the Still of the Night" was halfway finished, it became obvious that Monheit had made another key mistake of traveling with a bad band. Cassandra Wilson always carries terrific musicians, no matter what avenue she may be following. Dianna Krall cooks on piano, and always has compatriots who will do the same. If Kurt Elling ever got laryngitis, you could have a great time listening to the rest of the group. Even John Pizarelli's ordinary vocals are boosted by his fine guitar work and swinging bandmates. If Monheit fancies herself in that strata at some point, she'd best grab some musicians.

The ones she brought to The Egg were boring and their understanding of Brazilian music when Monheit intoned (and not that badly) music by Ivan Lins and Jobim was nonexistent as they stumbled through it like a drunk trying to get upstairs to bed. Even the standard swing was mundane.

The singer's work was often marred by phrasing that seemed off, or an approach far too stiff and rehearsed. She has a sense of swing, but her sense of daring needs adjustment. And perhaps that will come. She was best when the mood was quiet, like "Along Came Bill" that started with just piano accompaniment.

In fact, her best number of all was when she joined Frank & Joe for "Besame Mucho" which she performs on the group's 33 1/3 album released this year. This version was even better than the CD. It's not a jazz tune, and Monheit was right on target with a sweet tone and effective dynamics and range. She had superb support from... well.. great musicians.

As a warm-up band, the set was much abbreviated from their previous Albany date, all from 33 1/3. (A second recording has been made that should be released in the spring)."Begin the Beguine" scorched, with the virtuoso Vignola not only up to speed, but with that sweet tone and innate sense of swing. His touch on the balled "Alone Again, Naturally" showed he understands nuance and can deftly use his chops to dress up a nice melody. "Don't Fence Me In" was alternately soft, then burning, and had a lot of Frank & Joe's humor that they bring to their entertaining show. (They can be found in NYC at Sweet Rhythm on Sunday nights when not on tour). When they segued into "Flight of the Bumblebee" it's time to jump out of the way.

The tempo of "Flight" is insane, and both Vignola and Ascione have hands that are blurred as they expertly blaze through the song. There can't be faster hands than Ascione's. Whether playing all the drums with his hands, or slapping the djembe with brushes (he doesn't use a standard drum kit with Frank & Joe), he shows a mastery of rhythm and a sense for playing the right thing. There are two other percussionists - Rich Zucor and Charles Ferruggia - and they meld perfectly. In fact, the rhythm, was much richer and had more jump than early in the year because of Ferruggia's presence. He was sick and didn't make the aforementioned gig in Albany last time.

The band closed with a soft and serene "Stardust" showcasing Vignola's supple strings. This is one entertaining group.

Visit Frank and Joe on the web at www.thefrankandjoeshow.com .

Photo Credit
Bruce Moore

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