Jane Monheit, who was at SOhO for two nights last week, represents much of what is good and exciting about today’s vocal jazz renaissance. She is as comfortable singing in Portuguese as she is in English, and she takes pop songs to intimate, jazzy places. Her band, led by Michael Kanan on piano, is never less than fully alive and responsive, and her tone is crystalline. Hearing Monheit hit high notes, one feels as if a beautiful, perfectly shaped bell were singing instead of ringing.
Monheit opened her set with “So Many Stars,” a song associated with the great Sarah Vaughan. Where Vaughan could be hyper-stylized, Monheit approaches things more straight ahead, although that doesn’t mean she’s afraid to scat a little on the out choruses or play with the tune. Her greatest strength lies in her ability to structure a song in a way that is familiar and fresh, and her first real triumph of the night came when she made a deliciously slow entrance into the theme of “Alfie.” Just when you thought everything that could possibly be done to a song had been tried, out pops Monheit with an interpretation that makes it sound completely new.
On an Antonio Carlos Jobim number, Kanan sparkled at the electric piano, giving the piece the lilting quality so essential to Brazilian music. As the song drew to a close, the vamp became so hypnotic that the band refused to let go. Finally, Monheit was prompted to break up the drawn-out finale herself, remarking, “We’ll fade this one all night if somebody doesn’t clap soon.”
In her early career, Monheit was known for her brooding, highly intelligent readings of songs by Joni Mitchell, and the audience at SOhO was fortunate on Wednesday to get a taste of what all that excitement was about when Monheit took on the classic “A Case of You.” The syncopated chorus-“I could drink a case of you / and still be on my feet”-came across with tremendous emotional impact, showing just how much a talented singer can do with great material. Monheit is unquestionably one of our best American singers of Brazilian music, which is already an important role, but with the broader songbook that she is touring with now, and the sensitive accompaniment of an experienced back-up band, she is fast becoming one of our top jazz singers as well.