Generation gap 

Jazz diva-in-waiting Jane Monheit shows her age

SPIVEY HALL, JAN. 20 -- These days, most aspiring young R&B singers don their sequined G-strings and adopt a style that is half-stratospheric screech, half-orgasmic moan, performing rhythm-driven dance music that is, for the most part, unworthy of vocal interpretation yet somehow manages to top the pop charts.

But in an era when only the commercially viable are worthy of high-stakes marketing, singer Jane Monheit does it differently, flouting convention by sticking to tradition. Under the catch-all genre of jazz, Monheit delves into the American popular songbook, celebrating a style of lyric-driven music that went out when rock moved in. And she still manages to sell records.

Sadly, hearing Monheit in person turns out to be an exercise in frustration. At moments, she manages to achieve what she intended. But for the most part, she has neither a sense of the song nor -- fatal for the genre -- a sense of the lyric.

Monheit has a seamless, beautifully trained voice that leaps from honeyed low tones to pure high notes. But her singing is so self-absorbed, so intent on getting the most extemporary vocal obbligatos out of every line. Add to that her offhand phrasing (which tends to die away into a whisper at every line), slurred diction and an inappropriate rhythm-and-blues inflection in her improvisational technique.

Monheit's Atlanta debut Sunday evening at Spivey Hall packed the house -- and with good reason. For a jazz singer to enjoy the kind of media attention and airplay she gets is extraordinary. What's even more extraordinary is that she sells out houses singing Harold Arlen, George Gershwin and Jimmy McHugh. But this is why she needs to be careful -- oh, so careful. Being the torchbearer for an entire repertoire is a serious responsibility, and Monheit seems aware of this in the songs she chooses to sing -- but not in the way she chooses to sing them.

Opening the program with an uptempo, ineffectual "They Can't Take That Away From Me," Monheit swung into classics such as "More Than You Know" and "People Will Say We're in Love" -- both delivered at a quick, clipped tempo that kills the meaning of the songs. Her Brazilian repertoire fared much better (works by Mendez and Jobim) probably because this stylized material is rhythm-driven rather than lyric-driven.

Meanwhile, her version of "Someone to Watch Over Me" was sublime, sung without vocal histrionics, interpreted with all the wistful melancholy the song evokes. And the rapturous applause of the audience should clue her into the idea that maybe she should sing the rest of her repertoire with this kind of stylistic authenticity and attention to the words.

Monheit's overall style is an understated one, slightly reminiscent of Peggy Lee. But very few vocalists can do this sort of thing. In singing, subtlety is quickly overdone. It's meant to be used for emphasis. It's not meant to carry a song, which is typically Monheit's approach.

That said, Monheit flaunted her sexuality to great effect, appearing in a black strapless sheath and standing arms akimbo with an "I dare you" look toward the band. Kudos, by the way, to her ensemble -- particularly Joel Frahm on saxophone and Mike Kanan on piano. Kanan is a true jazz pianist and accompanist, and Monheit was at her best while singing with him.

But her sexuality fell flat when she sang -- in a delivery lacking both expression and understanding -- sultry songs such as Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town" and Jimmy McHugh's "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

The good news is that Monheit is only 23 years old. In the hands of the right coaches, managers and agents (that is, if they don't try to make a Mariah Carey out of her), she could make a special contribution to the American jazz scene. Her rendering of "Someone to Watch Over Me" proves that. It lingers still.



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