Blessed with “a voice of phenomenal beauty” (Stephen Holden, The New York Times), Jane Monheit has had plenty of milestone moments in establishing herself as one of today’s best and most important vocalist-musicians.
With her new album, The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald – the first to be released on her own Emerald City Records – the Long Island native has surprised even herself with her artistic leap. She had thought about recording an Ella tribute for a long time. Fitzgerald’s beloved songbook albums held “Biblical” importance for her when she was growing up and have never lost their hold on her.
Jane Monheit was born on November 3, 1977. She was raised in Oakdale, New York, on Long Island’s South Shore. Her aunt and grandmother were professional singers. Her mother performed in musical theater and currently performs in local choirs, and her father plays banjo and guitar. His love of bluegrass, folk and acoustic blues (Bonnie Raitt and Maura O’Connell were among his favorites) shaped her musical sensibility. “It all came down to storytelling,” she says.
She spent her childhood summers at the Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts, from which she received a distinguished alumna award. (Other notable alumni include Natalie Portman, Mariah Carey and Taylor Dayne.) Throughout her years of public school, she studied clarinet and music theory and performed in theatrical productions both at school and with her local community theater group.
Ms. Monheit went on to study voice at the Manhattan School of Music with Peter Eldridge, a founding member of the vocal group New York Voices. She graduated with honors in 1999 and received the William H. Borden Award for outstanding accomplishment in jazz. It was at MSM that she met her husband, drummer Rick Montalbano. They married soon after college.
At the young age of 20, Ms. Monheit became first runner-up in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute’s vocal competition behind the late, great Teri Thornton. Soon after, Ms. Monheit released her stunning debut album, Never Never Land, featuring Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Lewis Nash. The first of four recordings for N-Coded – a label founded by Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen with Phil Ramone – the album was voted Best Recording Debut by the Jazz Journalists Association and stayed on the Billboard jazz chart for a year.
Come Dream with Me (N-Coded) followed in 2001 with a No. 1 debut on the Billboard jazz chart and including a wider range of Ms. Monheit’s influences as well as popular jazz standards. In the Sun (2002) was recorded with lush string arrangements and a repertoire of songs from the 40s through the 70s. Further highlighting her range and command as a vocalist-musician, Live at the Rainbow Room (2003, DVD/CD) documents a performance at the iconic New York club with a full band and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alan Broadbent.
The albums kept coming, reflecting Ms. Monheit’s dual interests in jazz and cabaret: Taking a Chance on Love, a swinging survey of show tunes and her label debut for Sony (2004); the Christmas-themed Season (Sony, 2005); Surrender (Concord, 2007), which showed off her love of Brazilian music and paired her with none other than Ivan Lins, Sergio Mendes and Toots Thielemans; and The Lover, The Dreamers and Me (Concord, 2009), with tunes by Paul Simon, Fiona Apple and Burt Bacharach. Home (EmArcy, 2010) was “a joy to do because it was just me and the working band with amazing guests who also happened to be our very good friends,” while Heart of the Matter (EmArcy/Decca, 2013) was “a really heavy emotional experience.”
Jane Monheit has also appeared on the albums of many other artists over the years, including Terence Blanchard, Tom Harrell, Freddy Cole, Mark O’Connor, David Benoit and Ivan Lins. She performed with the San Diego Symphony (led by the late Marvin Hamlisch) in 2011.