Jane Monheit, bookending gigs at Manhattan’s top jazz rooms with a two-week stretch at the elite Oak Room, a cushy home to cabaret artists, puts a distinctive new edge on her quickly blossoming career. Currently, she is decidedly marketable as an attractive pop singer entrenched in the art of romantic balladry; she also displays uncommonly soaring growth as a freshly imaginative jazz vocalist. It appears Monheit can have it both ways for awhile.
A vision of a sultry nightclub singer in the smoky, black-and-white world of film noir, Monheit loses little time in seducing her audience. With a light, clear voice, often marked by a sensuous bite, she reveals emotional honesty, clean diction and a sure sense of time. Groomed on the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald, the same girlish grace is present, but there is also the sweet seductiveness and warmth one associates with the likes of Julie London and Jeri Southern.
Monheit is a confident and knowing singer. It may be somewhat of a surprise to discover that, at 22, she voices a deep and mature understanding of the sweet and the bittersweet, and can plumb the ardent depths of such worldly laments as “Blame It on My Youth” and “Young and Foolish.” Monheit invites the listener to check out her set list, which appears to document her growing up, and the songs, while old as the hills, appear to tell her story.
“It’s better than a diary,” Monheit muses, and when she sings “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and “Haunted Heart,” one senses the hallowed American Songbook was the choice subject of her youth. In her debut engagement at the venerable Oak Room, she graduates with honors.
When jazz-flavored singers leave the safe harbor of the romantic musical literature of the 1930s and 1940s, the most obvious options are the songs of Antonio Carlos Jobim. Monheit is no exception. While “Dindi” graced her well-received CD debut, “Never Never Land” (N-Coded Music), it was the enveloping lilt and bossa rhythms of “If You Never Come to Me” — with the tasteful sole accompaniment of guitarist Rodney Jones — that defined the feathery intimacy and alluring wistfulness the singer easily summons.