That was the year her debut recording, Never Never Land, surfaced. It was a versed sampler of standards sung with worldly confidence and backed by a support team that boasted such esteemed instrumentalists as bassist Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron, as well as the famed saxophone alliance of Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. The latter two were known for their groundbreaking work decades earlier with Ray Charles.
All in all, the recording was an impressive way of establishing one’s intentions as a vocalist. But then, Monheit, who was 22 at the time, was used to that. She spent her childhood plotting a singing career. She wasn’t shy in telling people about it, either.
“I pretty much knew that was going to be my vocation from the time I was tiny,” said Monheit, who makes her Kentucky debut next weekend with performances in Louisville and Richmond. “When I was a toddler, a pre-schooler, I knew I was going to be a singer. I told anyone I knew that.”
A lifelong New Yorker, Monheit absorbed the vocal inspirations of numerous pioneers in shaping the dynamic and romantic foundations of her own singing. Ella Fitzgerald was, and still is, obvious. You can sense shades of her vocal exuberance, lightness and phrasing in the giddy version of A Shine on Your Shoes that opens Monheit’s recent Home album. But an early fascination and respect for the singing of Judy Garland (“because of the way she fearlessly expressed emotion”) and a legion of Broadway-based vocalists (Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters, among them) also made Monheit a favored draw in New York cabaret rooms.
But here is a curious addition to Monheit’s stylistic dossier: bluegrass. Her father was a banjo player instructed by Tony Trischka, one of the instrument’s foremost educators and performers. The links don’t stop there. Among the many artists that have struck up lasting alliances with Monheit is Mark O’Connor, the versatile classical and jazz composer/instrumentalist who was bred on bluegrass.
So prevalent was bluegrass in her youth that Monheit found herself at something of a crossroads early on between jazz and bluegrass/folk paths for her career.
“I grew up with a strong attachment to bluegrass,” Monheit said. “I went to more bluegrass shows than jazz shows as a kid. For awhile, I thought, ‘Man, do I want to be the next Maura O’Connell (the Irish-born folk singer who established a strong bluegrass/Americana fanbase after relocating to Nashville)?’ I mean, I was really into it.
“That’s why artists like Mark are heroes of mine. I could have died when he called me to play on In Full Swing (a 2003 O’Connor album of gypsy jazz and swing music that had Monheit singing standards like Fascinating Rhythm, As Time Goes By and Misty). Now when we play together, I’m always like ‘Can we play something folky like Love Has No Pride (a tune popularized by Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt)? What a way to work together. Mark wants to play jazz and I want him to play folk music.”
Still, it is within jazz circles that Monheit’s vocal work has been best displayed. Among other early collaborators was trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who recruited Monheit as one of four champion vocalists (along with Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves) for his 2002 album of Jimmy McHugh songs, Let’s Get Lost.
The latter project – in particular, a beautifully hushed reading of Too Young to Go Steady – reflects the intimacy of her own fine recordings. While Monheit is more than at home in elegant orchestral settings, it is in small combo settings, like the one that dominates much of Home, that her singing truly glows.
As a result, it’s not surprising that she views her band – pianist Michael Kanen, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano – as family. Granted, that’s a somewhat literal estimation as Monheit and Montalbano are also husband and wife. But the birth of the couple’s son Jack in 2008 also underscored the sense of kinship she feelst with Kane and Miner.
“Outside of parents and grandparents coming to the hospital, they were the first two people to hold my son when he was just a couple of days old. That says a lot about the kind of relationship we have. And I know that makes the music even more special.”
Jane Monheit performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Clifton Center Eifler Theatre, 2117 Payne St. in Louisville ($33, $35) and at 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. ($25-$35)..