Pristine-voiced @JaneMonheit joins forces with trumpeter/composer Nicholas Payton @paynic to pay homage to Ella on her first album on her own Emerald City label. An abridged version of this review appears in the May 2016 @DownBeat. Here’s the more expansive version.
Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald
Emerald City Records ECR-001
★ ★ ★ ★
Nobody brought more joy or pathos to jazz singing than Ella Fitzgerald, inspiring generations of jazz vocalists. One of them was Jane Monheit, who grew up learning the American popular song canon from Ella’s “songbook” albums, as well as from her other idols like Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and Judy Garland. Now Monheit repays the debt, singing favorite Fitzgerald tunes in an album filled with moments of startling invention and beauty.
Monheit’s pristine tone and formidable jazz instincts were recognized as a natural wonder when she won first-runner-up at the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition. She doesn’t just sing a song, she ebbs and flows with it, breathing, sighing, moaning and caressing every syllable until it becomes her own. Over the years, however, Monheit has often had to prove that she was more of a serious jazz artist than the sexy image promoted by a series of record labels. Now on her own label, she has used her new-found freedom not only to record this long-gestating homage to Ella, but to do it her way, with help from the superb trumpeter-keyboardist-composer Nicholas Payton, who produced, as well as arranging eight of the twelve tracks.
The world didn’t need to hear Monheit or anyone else reiterate Ella’s definitive performances of these songs. The album’s opening notes – an odd, but alluring bass ostinato that paves the way for her sultry cooing of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” – announce its intention to design adventurous new settings for these classics. The arrangements remain true to the indelible melodies and lyrics but roam freely around their harmonic structures.
Payton originally intended only to produce and arrange but ended up playing throughout the album, creating a fascinating melodic foil for Monheit. Their two voices entwine in gorgeous melody in a pairing of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” with “In a Sentimental Mood.” A brisk, carefree version of “Where or When” finds Monheit swinging in full Ella mode.
No singer could wish for more simpatico backing than Monheit gets from her longtime trio, Michael Kanan on piano and keyboards, Neal Miner on bass, and Rick Montalbano on drums. In particular, Kanan’s art as an accompanist is in full flower in a moving voice/piano duet of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” in which the pair elevate the Cole Porter standard to the level of art song.
Songbook Sessions/Ella Fitzgerald: All Too Soon; Somebody Loves Me; Chelsea Mood (Chelsea Bridge/In A Sentimental Mood); Something’s Gotta Give; I Was Doing All Right/Know You Now; Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye; Where Or When; Ill Wind; All Of Me; I Used To Be Colorblind; I’ve Got You Under My Skin; This Time The Dream’s On Me (58:42)
Personnel: Jane Monheit, vocals; Nicholas Payton; trumpet, piano (11), organ (11,12), arrangements; Michael Kanan, acoustic and electric piano, arrangements (3, 6); Neal Miner, bass, arrangements (7, 10); Rick Montalbano, drums; Daniel Sadownick, percussion; Brandee Younger, harp (5, 12).
Ordering info: janemonheitonline.com