Back in the quaint town of North Hampton, Massachusetts is where I first experienced the sparkle of Jane Monheit, and her lyrical tone and expressions on stage. Almost angelic in nature, this initial encounter captured my total awareness. An eclectic feel in sound and method that redefines the jazz vocalist stereotype and perception. Opinions aside, Ms. Monheit’s energy and talent is foremost in the jazz industry.
Ms. Monheit’s fifth studio album, The Season (Epic Records cat. 97221), unleashes a tantalizing holiday manifestation in lyrical jazz. A long time conceptualization of Ms. Monheit, influenced by Ella’s 1960 album, Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas (Verve), The Season is a Christmas masterpiece. It has vast appeal and a diverse mix of emotions and genres, casting a deep impression of holiday spirits to those who embrace the yuletide.
In short order, Ms. Monheit has become a key jazz vocalist with untouchable potential. Her limitations are non-existent with innovation becoming the standard in embracing her art. Jane Monheit is what every vocalist yearns to be well respected!
As we spoke, her youthful expression, yet mature dissection of her craft, came boldly to the forefront--from her thoughts on co-producing to her expectations of those who work along side of her. At times she seemed so undecided about her answers yet it was only a mirage. For she knows and distributes only what she feels is best for her and her loyal fans with decisive confidence. Ms. Monheit knows her role and the audience that comes with it, a very grounded spirit!
As we follow the path to her first specialty album, The Season, note the passion she exhumes from her past holiday experiences. She offers those joyful moments to us here. Experience, as I did, the wonderful makeup and vibe of Jane Monheit as we go between sets.
JazzReview: Following your career, it seems to me that you have risen to your heights in jazz faster than most.
Jane Monheit: In addition to being in the right place at the right time, which is everything in showbiz, I have always worked with really wonderful people who have really done so much for me in terms of boosting me up and getting me out there.
JazzReview:: What was the one catalyst in your professional life that helped you get to this point in the industry?
Jane Monheit: Oh gosh, I don’t know it must really be the musical environment we have been in for awhile. You know, the door was opened for jazz singers by a couple of really great artists who brought this music to a more mainstream audience. You know the Harry Connick, Jr.’s, the Diana Krall’s, all these incredible musicians that paved the way for the rest of us. It was really just good timing.
JazzReview: You speak of an "environment." Describe it for us.
Jane Monheit: I think it’s a time when more people are discovering jazz a bit more. Jazz used to be considered popular music. It certainly hasn’t been that way for decades. I see jazz much better now than when I was a kid. For some reason, the world is opening up to it again. I think that there are a lot of factors that have to do with that. Whether universities have jazz programs or people wanted to hear something a little different again, jazz has opened up.
JazzReview: Put yourself in the other chair as an observer of Jane Monheit’s style. How would you describe it?
Jane Monheit: In terms of jazz vocals, I feel it’s pretty traditional, pretty classic. But, because I do like to mix in a lot of other styles for doing music and things like that, I often wonder what people think about that. All I know is that I am really being myself. I hope people view me as that. When I am on stage, that serves as the most natural version of my personality and I hope people view it as that.
JazzReview: How do you describe your work ethic and the way you apply your craft?
Jane Monheit: Well, I do warm up to sing, but I am definitely not the kind of vocalist who practices every day and all that stuff, at this point in my life. I used to be, but now that we are on the road so much and I do like to stay on the road as much as possible, I like getting out there and being with the people. I sing as much as I can, but I tend to rest my voice when I am not singing. I don’t sing much at home either.
Work is very important to me. In fact, I have been realizing that more lately. It becomes clearer to me in recent months how I truly appreciate my work. I have been running around the world like a maniac for six years and in these past few months I have slowed down. It has made me understand what I love about this work--how I want to approach things.
JazzReview: How would you explain to a new jazz vocalist/student the art of singing? What profound piece of knowledge would you pass on that you feel is vital to the success of a career in jazz?
Jane Monheit: I would tell them two things. Number one, to study music! Make sure you know everything an instrumentalist needs to know. You can’t slack off because you are a singer. It (singing) comes easy to us. We use our ears. But to rely just on that is a really big mistake.
The other thing is, it is essential to be yourself. Part of jazz is expressing something to people. Whether it’s writing songs that make you feel that way or choosing a song that makes you feel that way. It is important that everything you sing is a personal expression. Even if it is through the words of George Gershwin or Cole Porter, it still needs to be really meaningful. That is what music is all about. The execution!
JazzReview: Filtering through all the professional advice/knowledge that has been passed down through your career, which piece of advice had the largest impact and who gave it?
Jane Monheit: Oh God, that’s a hard one. Well, you know, I think a really defining moment for me in that sort of area wasn’t necessarily a piece of advice that someone gave me. However, it was life experience that really changing the way I look at some things. The most important lesson I have definitely learned is that there are lyrics and they count. That was something that I overlooked when I was a young vocalist.
Then too, I fell in love with my husband and that changed everything. It’s been so valuable. It has changed me in every way that I approach music. So it was a lesson I learned from the world, not just from a specific person.
JazzReview: Does your style/mood in your performances mirror the real Jane?
Jane Monheit: Definitely, definitely! The songs I choose have everything to do with my life and me. The ballads I choose every night have everything to do with the way I am feeling that day. I am just really comfortable on stage, perhaps more comfortable when I am off. When people see my show they are really just hanging out with me.
JazzReview: With the release of your first holiday offering, The Season, we experience the festive side of you. What made you decide that this was the right time to do a specialty recording?
Jane Monheit: Christmas is the happiest time for me. I love Christmas! I am a crazy Christmas obsessive, so the idea of making a Christmas album was such a happy thought for me. Of course, at the same time, it would be a happy album. It does have all those beautiful dramatic ballads that I can’t live without. Overall, its one of the happiest records I have ever made.
JazzReview: What is so exceptional about the recording Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas that inspired you to do your own?
Jane Monheit: Just what we were talking about, it is the happiest Christmas album I have ever heard. I love it. It’s funny I listened and loved Ella for most of my life, in fact worshiped her my whole life, I wouldn’t discover that record until later in my life at college. I was seventeen when I first bought that record.
That album totally changed the way I looked at Christmas albums. I loved what a happy festive album it truly was, even those songs that are usually done as ballads like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." It’s a slight swinging version; it is the best music to have playing when you have a Christmas celebration. I wanted my album to feel just like that!
JazzReview: How were the tracks selected and where there any omissions that you would have liked to include in the recording?
Jane Monheit: Actually, I did manage to record everything I wanted to. Some select areas have a bonus track. I wish it could have been part of the body of the album, but we need to do things a certain way. The track was "What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve," but I did come in with a list and I did them.
Normally, it does not work that way. We record a bunch extra in case things do not work. However with this album, it was ‘this is what I want, this is what we are doing!’ (laughter)
JazzReview: This was your debut with Epic. Is there a reason why you came out of the gate with a specialty project?
Jane Monheit: We felt it was the right time. I was very ready to make it and I also do Christmas shows every year making an effort to talk to the people--sit and sign CD’s and hang out with everybody. I found over the years that everybody is asking when my Christmas album is coming. So it was time and I did.
JazzReview: Before we get into the album itself, I would like to touch upon you co-producing this project. How did this come to pass?
Jane Monheit: It is something I wanted to do for some time. I have been extremely involved in detail with every one of my albums, but I never asked for credit as a co-producer. I’ve worked with wonderful producers like Joel Doran, Peter Asher and Al Schmidt, so that I never thought of doing it myself. I knew it was something I wanted to do someday.
The Christmas album was definitely the right place to start for me. It was in my head for years and really ready to make with ideas of how I wanted to make it. It was beautiful to join forces with Al Schmidt who is such a genius. Yes, I am very excited that I was able to produce this album. I am very proud of it.
JazzReview: Along with you producing, accolade-coated Al Schmidt co-produced with you. Talk about you relationship and the process. Any difficulties?
Jane Monheit: Oh gosh, no! It’s scary, Al and I agree on everything. I can’t remember a time in making two albums together that we disagreed on anything. But honestly, in addition to being the genius, he is the most delightful person. Al is so lovely to be around it’s impossible not to make great music when he is in the room.
JazzReview: What aspect of the production process most interested you and enhanced your insight to the creation development?
Jane Monheit: I don’t know, the whole experience felt like that to me. This is a very different album for me. The studio dynamic was different. This was the first record that I was able to make exactly the way I wanted it in so many aspects. However, there are always limits in making records. You don’t have as much time as you want. No record comes out as perfectly as we want it to, but this one I was able to get close. I was in a great position to co-produce.
JazzReview: This album was a pure delight and unlike other holiday albums. In your opinion what makes The Season stand out among the masses of yuletide efforts.
Jane Monheit: One thing I like about it is that we mix genres a lot. A Christmas album, if your going to play it at a family outing, it has to be a recording you want to play from beginning to end. We are in this iTunes culture where we pick the songs off the albums we like. A Christmas song you have to play fully through.
We tried to make this album that feels good all the way through. Plus, mixing the genres feels most natural to me. I could never do an album of one genre. It would drive me crazy. I wanted it to be something for everyone and solid the whole way through.
JazzReview: "Merry Christmas, Darling" is such a sensitive production and arrangement. Talk about its creation.
Jane Monheit: I always have really loved that song and I really loved Brazilian music. I really felt that song would translate very well to a nice traditional Brazilian groove. You know, I just wanted to get to the heart of a lyric. I was thinking about doing a very sensitive sort of a Bossa Nova but yet it came together very easily with that song. It’s a tune I really liked.
JazzReview: "Moonlight in Vermont" is another that has a special feel to it. Can you talk about its selection and how it was arranged?
Jane Monheit: My pianist Michael Kanan did that arrangement years ago. It’s something we have been playing in our live shows for a very long time. I have always really loved it. I have been saving it for a Christmas album, although I wanted to record it a number of times in the past. But I thought how nice to put this beautiful winter song on a Christmas album, so I saved it for this.
The kicker, however, is the beautiful guitar sound. It reminds me of Aura Borealis, you know, looking at the Northern Lights on a winter’s night. I think about these songs very visually. With this one, it was very clear with all those lovely guitar sounds.
JazzReview: Your quartet is a standard group of friends. Talk about each member and how they influenced this project.
Jane Monheit: Well, the band, we work together, and their opinions are essential to me as mine are essential to them. We were working together in the studio. I haven’t had the chance to do that with them in the past. All my albums have been filled with guest stars and famous accompanists all that sort of thing.
What it really comes down to is that it is important to go into a studio with your own band . . .the guys you play with every single day on the road, the guys you brave the airport with at 4 a.m., the guys you built that incredible bond with. It makes for a really different recording experience.
The Next Level
JazzReview: Where does Jane go from here in the recording sense?
Jane Monheit: I know we are going to record an album in early spring. That is going to happen and we will be releasing a new album pretty soon on the heels of this one. I am not really sure what it is going to be. We are just going into the first planning stages now. I do not have any secrets to divulge. (Laughter)
JazzReview: Talk about the transition from independent to mainstream and the pros vs. cons.
Jane Monheit: I have been lucky enough to still work with great people where I get a lot of personal attention at the label and stuff like that. I have loved every minute I have been with Sony. Honestly, it has been great. Whether it’s Sony Classical or Epic, it’s been a move in the right direction and positive.
JazzReview: Now for the fun of it--if you were sent away for a long period of time and had to leave all but five recordings behind, which ones would you take with you?
Jane Monheit: Ahhh! That is so hard I can’t believe it. (laughter) This is great! Well first and foremost, I would have to pick out an Ivan Lins record. Oh God, I just don’t know which one. Maybe A Cor Do Pôr-Do-Sol [Abril 11070492] or Jobiniando [EMI 866299] definitely. But gosh! I would drown in the flood trying to pick out the record. I wouldn’t have a chance to escape. I would probably pick oh my gosh! I just don’t know (sigh)
I would probably pick something really rocking, too, like a blowing off steam or some really fierce album. I don’t know what though. I would take a Bill Evans’ album, maybe Everybody Digs Bill Evans although that would make me really sad because I would be on a desert island alone--maybe a Bjork album because she has always fascinated me as an artist. I can’t get enough of her. Maybe I should ask my husband?
A Stevie Wonder album! Yeah, that sounds good, or a Steely Dan record. Okay, so we have three now. And see, I have completely left out Ella, Judy Garland and everybody else. Okay I would have to bring Ella Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook. So now there is no room for Bill Evans See what you are doing to me here?