BWW Review: JAZZY JANE MONHEIT GETS COZY at Birdland
"Cozy"--- That's the word Jane Monheit tells us she had in mind when choosing the songs for this first night of her Birdland run, which goes through the end of this month. (Remember, it's a leap year, so February gives you an extra day to leap or fly to the jazz venue.) And cozy it mostly was for this well-established vocalist who celebrates the 20th anniversary of her recording debut this year. So, she frequently took the opportunity of that fact to introduce selections by stating which, if any, of her CDs they came from. This kind of "The next song..." narrative doesn't make for the most stimulating patter, unless it's all about stimulating sales. Those of us who've had the creamy, dreamy music from her discs filling our shelves and ears have long happily had Monheit in our minds ("Jane on the Brain"?), and have seen her perform. came in ready for radiance and The Big Cozy. And, as expected, the lady floated with, and doted on, the music-simmering, luxuriating in liquid gold, her body shifting and swaying, head bobbing. It was like she was lingering in a warm bubble bath with perfumed oils. Cozy.
From where I was sitting, the vocal sound coming from this woman I've enjoyed for years was disappointing at first. Was she so into her own enjoyment and movements that she was not using the mic properly? Swallowing her words? We don't expect to call in an emergency report to the Diction Police with such a much-experienced pro. After all, SHE wasn't phoning in her act, judging from her obvious smiling pleasure. The lyrics didn't get her usual care in those first several pieces as she seemed much more focused on melody lines (and tweaking them, which I do love as a big part of jazz's raison d'etre). I was wishing for Rose, the stage mother from the musical Gypsy, to call out from the house: "Sing out, Louise!!" I was hoping that it was merely a matter of the sound mix--- the balance between her mic and what we were hearing from her four splendid musicians (although none was banging away). The good news is that it got a lot better after five numbers and my frustrations departed.
The casual-but-merry Ms. Monheit was very ably assisted by Michael Kamen on piano, Perry Smith on guitar, Aaron Weinstein on a very welcome jazzy violin, and Neal Miner on bass (who'd also fashioned some of the arrangements). The singer was generous in her praise of them, and it takes only two ears to figure out why.
The set consisted of almost all older standards from the Great American Songbook by its giant writers--- like Kern, Hammerstein, the Gershwins, and Schwartz & Dietz, a showtune fave (the ever-wistful "Some Other Time" from On The Town, bringing out her best dramatic investment). Oh, and then there was a Hamilton item. No, no, not THAT Hamilton! Not the one still reigning and rapping on Broadway. I speak of the less lauded Arthur Hamilton, the man who wrote three songs for the movie Pete Kelly's Blues, including the elegant "He Needs Me," accompanied just by piano, showing the singer's ability to zero in on a vulnerable characterization and the hushed power of reflection. A break from the residency in the Laidback Languid Lounge was a welcome, unbilled guest appearance for opening night by that Dynamic Duo of Birdland --- Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch - who delivered adrenaline by adding vocal dazzle for a three-voiced romp through a very spirited and delightful "Avalon." Talk about sparks!
A provided set list indicated seven changes to the song line-up planned for the late set and a different encore than what was picked, but the alternate material is woven from the same cloth (a different cozy standard of the same era, swapping out one Brazilian item for another). But, no matter what repertoire you get, you get a gracious gal who loves and luxuriates in her music and musical mates, with a voice that can be cooing, caressing, comforting, cascading.... and, yes, "Cozy."