Jane Monheit has good reason to be smiling from the cover of last month's Down Beat. She recently left the world of indie labels behind to release her latest album on Sony.
At a time when jazz is not exactly flying off the shelves at music stores and record labels are dropping veteran players, there's one corner of the jazz world where the sun is shining. Female vocalists are enjoying a resurgence of interest, and, at the age of 27, Monheit is, as Down Beat's cover proclaims, "The 'It' Girl."
Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Hollywood Bowl, and the great jazz festivals of Europe --- Monheit's played them all. But when she visits Rochester next week she'll be performing in the kind of setting she enjoys the most, a small club.
"That's the place where this music really belongs, where it sounds best," Monheit said in a recent phone conversation. "This music is not really meant to be over-amplified or to fill a massive space. It's better in a small venue. And we get to have more fun. It's a looser environment where we can interact with people who come to the show from the stage. I'll always play small venues."
Monheit's career began to flower in 1998 when, at the age of 20, she placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. But she doesn't believe she took off a moment too soon.
"I was pretty ready for it. I had just graduated college and I already had an apartment with my fiancé, so many parts of my life were all sealed up. My love life was exactly where I wanted it to be. I wasn't worried about chasing boys or doing some of the other things that 20- and 21-year-olds are doing. I was really ready to move forward with my career."
Monheit had decided on that career long before.
The daughter of an actress-singer-dancer and a businessman who also played banjo, she'd grown up listening to jazz, show tunes, and bluegrass every day. She remembers when, at the age of five, her teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
"All the other kids were like, 'I'll be a fireman.' I wanted to be a jazz singer. It was really sort of set in stone."
She worshiped Ella Fitzgerald and loved Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and Barbara Cook. She also appreciated pop icons like Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt.
On Monheit's current CD, Taking a Chance on Love, she wraps her gorgeous soprano around songs from MGM movie musicals. With a diverse selection of tunes including "Dancing in the Dark" and "Over the Rainbow" and supporting musicians like Romero Lubambo, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash, the album is her finest yet.
With almost her entire career built on standards, Monheit laments the fact that Broadway --- at one time the great generator of classic tunes --- has turned to the retreads of Abba, Billy Joel, and others.
"There's a dearth of good songwriters. Or maybe they're out there and we're just not paying attention, that's the thing that scares me the most."
She has a surprising notion of where the next generation of tunesmiths might be found.
"Some of the songwriters who I think are the best and the wittiest are the people dealing with animation, the Trey Parkers, Matt Stones, and Seth McFarlands of the world who are writing for South Park and Family Guy and things like that. Hey guys, write us a Broadway show. Clean it up a little bit so we can bring the kids."
When I saw Monheit in Philadelphia a few years ago the highlight of her show was Antonio Carlos Jobims' "Waters of March," an enigmatic, poetic composition.
"There's an old wives' tale that says it's the clues to a murder," says Monheit. "I heard from someone else that it's things Jobim would see traveling home everyday. What I do know is that it's the happiest and saddest song in the whole world about wonderfully mundane things that make our absolutely glorious everyday lives. It's everything and nothing in the most wonderful way."
With a terrific upbringing, a happy marriage (to her drummer, Rick Montalbano), and a career that has gone straight up, has Monheit faced the kind of life experience that would lend authenticity to her singing? Her answer is disarming.
"I think the great misconception about jazz is that in order for life experience to have value when applied to your music, it has to be bad life experience. What the hell is up with that? It cracks me up to think about it," she says. "Why can't this music be about joyfulness and happiness and love? Has everybody missed the point about Ella Fitzgerald? This woman sang from the most beautiful, glorious, happy place. If any of us could ever feel what she must have felt like during those ecstatic moments.... "
Monheit loves the music of Billie Holiday and others who interpreted songs through a prism of turbulence, but she insists that applying her own life experience is also valid.
"Just because we have some icons that really were able to communicate through their hard times, I feel like everyone's forgotten about the people who communicated through their great times. Every time I get on stage, everything I do is informed by joy. I can't understand why people think that's wrong."
Jane Monheit plays Thursday, February 3, at Milestones, 170 East Avenue, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 to $25. 325-6490