Jazz singer Jane Monheit got through the pandemic by performing; but she sang online, from home.
She had just played a big-band show in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) when quarantine closed down the world. “I got home hours before the airport closed down,” she said last week by phone from the Los Angeles apartment she shares with drummer-husband Rick Montalbano and their rescue dogs Pierre and Pauline. “It was a little scary getting home from that tour,” she said.
While she acknowledged early-tour jitters hit when she resumed touring this spring, singing itself has seldom seemed scary to her. Growing up on Long Island, she sang her first paid gig at 16.
“I made about a hundred bucks, singing at a wedding,” she said. “I just always knew I was going to do that,” she recalled. “Everyone in my family was musical, so it just didn’t seem strange.” Her (now retired) father ran a business and her do-everything mom made all her Halloween costumes, for example, including a Christmas tree.
While she has said she admires Ella Fitzgerald’s elegant technical control and Judy Garland’s emotional drama, Monheit said, “There was no real defining person or moment” that inspired her approach to singing.
She studied music theory and arranging and played piano and woodwinds at the Manhattan School of Music and took four years of voice lessons. Singing jam sessions in New York clubs completed her training.
“Musicians getting together, getting to know each other, getting a chance to play in front of other people, it’s really, really important for young musicians,” she said. “It was a long time ago when I started getting up and sitting in in New York,” Monheit recalled. This never scared her. “I don’t remember feeling anything but good about it, honestly.”
After placing second in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition in Washington D.C., she recorded her first album at 22: “Never, Never Land” (N-Coded Records, 2000).
Three more releases followed on that label, then eight more on six different labels — typically a sign of an artist determined to create as their muse moves them, rather than market forces or industry trends; a brave choice.
Monheit’s dedication to classic songs — what Tony Bennett famously calls the Great American Songbook — has honed a classic style somewhat at odds with the industry’s emphasis on singer-songwriter approaches.
“I’m not a songwriter, but there’s always been pressure on me to write songs,” said Monheit. “ I don’t think every artist needs to be a songwriter. I think there’s a lot of beautiful music in the world that needs interpreting.”
At times, this has been a struggle. “It’s always been something I’ve had to convince people of,” she said. “When you write the songs you make more money,” Monheit explained. As she said with a high, hearty laugh, industry types ask, “Don’t you want to make more money?”
For an interpretive artist, “I think one of the most important things here is just choosing the right songs for yourself,” said Monheit. “It has to be something that you’re personally connected to. You have to have some knowledge of the story you’re trying to tell — I think that’s half the battle right there — and being unafraid to tell that story, no matter what that brings to you emotionally.”
Emotions around the pandemic shaped her new album “Come What May” (Club 44 Records, 2021) as did the need for the uplift a happy tune brings, no matter how familiar, and her abiding love for Brazilian music.
Her favorite song to sing on the 10-song album is “Samba Do Avaio.” She said, “It’s a beautiful song by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and it translates to ‘Samba for an airplane’ ” — perfect for a touring artist who escaped the pandemic aboard a flight from St. Petersburg. Among the album’s songs, she urges “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block” out of quarantined homes, takes us optimistically “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” finds love’s solace in “The Nearness of You,” celebrates the “Lush Life” and affirms “I Believe in You.”
The rhythm tracks are simple, the strings elegant and the sheer beauty of Monheit’s voice colored subtly by nuanced feeling.
“We recorded the whole album in about two days (in October 2020),” she said, “here at one of my producer’s home studios in Los Angeles.” She explained, “It was all very safe, everybody tested, everybody masked, the whole deal.”
Monheit also stayed busy, singing live, from home. “I did an online show every single month [with pianist Matt Haymer] and that was really fun,” she said. “That really got me through the pandemic.” She also binged on her friends’ live online shows, too, including Billy Stritch, Nicholas King and Jim Caruso.
Once touring felt safe again, Monheit said, “I think I was a little worried that I’d be terribly out of practice because it’s the kind of thing you can’t practice at home.” She said, “It’s a show: you either just do it or you don’t.”
Singing to people certainly helped. “The audiences are so wonderful,” said Monheit. “They’re so friendly, so you instantly feel at home. It’s pretty easy to get the hang of it.”
Nonetheless, she always prepares her shows carefully. “I also have a background in theater,” she said, “and I always like to put on a good show … I like knowing what’s happening and have a nice plan for the audience.”
However, she and her band are also ready to change things up. “You know, you make a plan but you plan to break a plan,” she said. “You always keep things flexible” — in song choices and solos.
How often do things change onstage?
“Almost every night!”
Singing with her trio — pianist Michael Kanan (who also played on “Come What May”), bassist Neil Minor and drummer Joe Strasser
Where: The Egg Center for the Performing Arts (Empire State Plaza, Albany)
When: Thursday, Nov. 11, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $34. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org