At the dawn of the new century, ex-Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins called Big Apple songstress Jane Monheit, then making her debut, a wannabe. Monheit's come a long way. Her last two CDs, Surrender (2007) and The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me (this year), both on Concord, put her in the big leagues. Monheit appears Oct. 23 at the Wisconsin Union Theater with her regular band of hubby Rick Montalbano on drums, Michael Kanan on keys and Neal Miner on bass. I may not agree with all their song choices, but I expect to be delighted with this show anyway.
Surrender is Monheit's favorite of the two Concord albums. It's mine, too. It's got a few flaws. No matter who's the chanteuse, "Moon River" makes me cringe. But Monheit's breezy bossa novas - especially "So Many Stars," with Sérgio Mendes on piano - satisfy. Best of all, Monheit exudes soul on the bluesy title cut.
The Lovers, the Dreamers, an eclectic set, stocks too much mainstream pop - Paul Simon, Fiona Apple, Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection." The album's standouts, by far, are the standards. Monheit slinks through Jimmy Dorsey's "I'm Glad There Is You"; she totally swings on Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town."
The new album was made under unusual circumstances, Monheit says. "I was pregnant with my son, and after years of record companies trying to cross me over I just wanted to sing good music, go to my roots and do something to welcome my son into the world. I was due in a couple of weeks when I recorded the standards.
"So I have the baby and it's time to go back to the studio and finish the record, and the company completely changed what it wanted. I love Paul Simon. I'm pretty good at pop - the only genre I don't like to sing is opera, or like metal. But I'm a jazz singer. There I was with a newborn, and Concord wanted crossover material. There was no arguing. So I whipped out a bunch of tunes in that genre that I had in the back of my head. We ended up with an album that spans eight decades of songs. But they're all good songs, and seeing that your voice is what makes a collection like that cohesive is great."
In the future, though, Monheit won't let recording labels boss her around. "Having a baby makes you braver. You go through this massive life-changing experience when you give birth. You grow some balls."
Union Theater's the first stop on a long list of upcoming shows. She'll cover some ground Friday night, she says. "I can't go onstage and just run through my latest record. I always do what we're feeling at the time, and the audience is part of that. When you go hear somebody sing, you feel let down if you don't hear your favorites."