BWW Reviews: Jazz Stars Jane Monheit & John Pizzarelli Thrill in OC Cabaret Concert

You know that saying that "two is better than one?" Well it couldn't have been a more enjoyably appropriate description than the swingin'-est concert to hit Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in some time: the double-bill of jazz powerhouses Jane Monheit and John Pizzarelli. The two talented stars—each accompanied by their own incredible traveling bands—played to an almost-packed house this past Friday, October 5 as the rousing season opener for the 2012-2013 Cabaret Series at the Center.

Though the opulent setting of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall seems a tad too huge for what would normally be much more at home at the smaller, more intimate Samueli Theatre (the usual site for these often candle-lit Cabarets), the enlarged venue actually worked well in framing these two regal acts—allowing the gorgeous space to reveal just how both of these artists deserve much bigger fame than they already enjoy.

The pair's well-crafted individual sets were clearly demarcated by an intermission, but both provided a nice sampling of each of their unique contributions to the world of jazz. With Monheit, you get a beautiful, theatrically supple voice—masterful and effortless in every jaw-dropping delivery; with Pizzarelli, you get a terrific jazz guitarist armed with incredible improv skills and a smile-inducing rapport with the audience that's part stand-up comic routine, part head-boppin' fun. At one point both performers even come together for a couple of superb duets that demonstrate, again, why these two are laudable musical geniuses whether singing solo or with each other.

Up first during this true double-bill was two-time Grammy nominee Monheit, seductively confident and playfully sassy throughout her lovely set, much like a modern-day hybrid of Mae West, Jessica Rabbit, and Ella Fitzgerald. Though still looking like a fresh-faced ingenue, the now 34-year-old wife and mother continues to sing with a palpable maturity beyond her years (It also helps that Monheit comes equipped with some of the best, most emotionally-resonant jazz arrangements of this young century courtesy of her principal pianist Michael Kanan).

It's this self-assured, very musical theater-like approach to the Great American Songbook—first heard in her valiant 2000 debut album Never Never Land—that elevates Monheit from your typical jazz singer. Blessed with precise vocal control and depths of connective emotion—whether bubbly and high, flirty and fun, or sincerely heartbreaking—Monheit seems to have a knack for caressing each note with measured care. Her vocal prowess creates such vivid stories, often striking just the right mood necessary to fashion a full-bodied performance.

This is particularly evidenced by her flawless, soul baring duet with Kanan on "Over the Rainbow," a song that has held a special significance in Monheit's continued career (which she described in her BWW interview here). It was so eerily quiet during this song that you could have literally heard a pin drop in between the beautifully-rendered lyrics. This hushed, piano-only-backed rendition was brand new for me personally, as I've only heard her other, more well-known arrangements that include full, swelling orchestras. But much like in those layered iterations, Monheit succeeded in mining gut-wrenching emotion out of each note, enhancing its deeper connotations as a melancholy song of quiet, aching longing. How amazing was Monheit's version? Let's just say even my tin-hearted friend sitting next to me was reduced to a puddle of tears. It was simply goosebump-marvelous.

Rest assured, Monheit—who was joined on stage by Kanan, bassist Neal Miner, and drummer/husband Rick Montalbano—was just as incredible in the speedier, more uptempo songs as well. Her opener "Old Devil Moon" introduced her sexy, sultry side almost immediately, while her swingin' take on Mel Torme's "Born To Be Blue" (arranged by Miner) was jazz-hot... that is until it morphed seamlessly into a seductive, slow-burn torch song. Wow.

She pulled a few more tunes from her discography including Cole Porter's "In The Still of the Night," the sweet-and-scatty "Stardust" (which she recorded, she admitted, so that her grandfather could add her version to his collection of 1,500+ recordings of the song), and her lovely finalé "I Wish You Love" (plucked from her Best Of album). She also gave a rousing, if rushed live version of "Twisted" from her debut album, which is perhaps the set's lone slight misstep—only because it seemed the song was now double-timed. Unless you've heard the song before—which is already such a tongue-twister to begin with—you'll find yourself completely losing comprehension of the hilariously wicked lyrics, more so in this even faster version.

But soon after, she treated the audience to a preview of a song slated for her next studio album: a stunning, Kanan-arranged rendition of the Bergman's "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" Once again, Monheit demonstrated her great acting skills as well as her mastery of—and, perhaps, affection for—tunes of heartache. Afterwards, she remarked,
"Man, it's like a Mark Romanek film up in here!" Ha!

Throughout her hour-long set—peppered with very little banter—Monheit displayed just how effortlessly she transitions from sassy belter to rhythmic scat-master to emotionally vulnerable torch song chanteuse with just a flip of a song. Her live performances—bubbling with an intriguing stage presence that truly adds to her mystique—almost felt like enhanced, tricked-out versions of her studio recordings. And, of course, her vocal riffs and effortless runs suggested that Monheit is a far more adventurous singer than, say, her safe, platinum-selling peers (and, fine, in the spirit of full disclosure... I am unashamed to admit that, perhaps, my judgment may be a bit clouded: she is my favorite singer—simply because of these exact reasons).

While the first half was mostly flirty and sassy (with tinges of bluesy heartbreak), the second half of the evening was an all-out laugh-riot, thanks to audience-pleaser Pizzarelli and his seemingly endless stream of tales. Armed with folksy zingers, an electric guitar, and an easy-as-molasses singing voice, the veteran jazz man—backed by pianist Larry Fuller, drummer Tony Tedesco, and his "brother by the marriage of my parents" bassist Martin Pizzarelli—entertained fans and newbies alike with a set that mixed droll stories and toe-tapping jazz gems. (In his own words, Pizzarelli described the double-bill concert thusly: "She's the music, I'm the comedy!")

Though, comic stylings aside, the Pizzarelli Quartet is, musically, a really seasoned one, as evidenced by their mostly uptempo showcase that traversed everything from Duke Ellington to the Beatles. His set even included several moments that called for welcome audience participation (Johnny Mercer's "Switcherooni" and the Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller ditty "Ruby Baby").

His aw-shucks brand of humor was instantly charming, of course, and his everyman demeanor quickly endeared him to the entire room, especially while relating amusing anecdotes about his own father, Bucky Pizzarelli—himself a famous jazz session musician with a list of staggering credits that had many jaws dropping (and, FYI, he's also married to Broadway vet Jessica Molaskey to boot!) When he did sing, it was utterly beguiling, especially while scatting like crazy—and in perfect syncopation with his guitar strums!

The absolute treat, though, was when Monheit came back out to sing a couple of duets she had sung with Pizzarelli in the recent past: the first, the absolutely adorkable "Tonight You Belong To Me" (made famous by Bernadette Peters and Steve Martin in The Jerk) which was featured in Monheit's last studio album Home, followed by the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me" which they sang together on Ramsey Lewis' PBS anthology series Legends of Jazz—an appearance that, Pizzarelli gloated, has become a YouTube sensation. Both singers had wonderful chemistry with both songs and you can absolutely tell they enjoyed each others' mutual talents. It was perfection and you could tell the audience wanted more of that, too.

But it was Pizzarelli's humor that became the real take-away from his enjoyable second half, which culminated in a tour-de-force, seemingly non-stop medley of musical impersonations of different music industry titans crossing different genres on the song "We Like Jersey Best." In this excitingly manic finalé, Pizzarelli posits a "what if" scenario, imagining how each artist might go about performing this little-known pro-Garden State anthem. He certainly elicited some joyful cheers with his dead-on takes of everyone from Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and James Taylor, to, Louis Armstrong, the BeeGees, and, yes, even Billie Holiday!

Overall, the Monheit-Pizzarelli concert is one of the Center's best jazz cabarets they've ever offered, featuring two genuine musical superstars. Here's hoping that a return engagement from both artists is in the cards, each with individual shows.

Photos courtesy of SCFTA/Happy Photos Inc.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ


Segerstrom Center for the Arts' 2012-2013 Cabaret Series continues with Michael Feinstein's The Sinatra Project (October 27, 2012) followed by Lea Salonga (January 19, 2013), Marin Mazzie & Jason Danieley (February 14-16, 2013), Barbara Cook's 85th Birthday Concert (April 13, 2013), and, finally, Betty Buckley (May 16-18, 2013).

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