Critics and fans alike couldn't help but marvel when Jane Monheit introduced herself to the jazz world in 2000.
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 esteemed instrumentalists including bassist Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron, and 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, now 34, who makes her Kentucky debut this 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."
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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, which opens Monheit's recent album, Home. But there also was 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) that have 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 who have struck up lasting alliances with Monheit is Mark O'Connor, the versatile classical and jazz composer/instrumentalist who was raised on bluegrass.
So prevalent was bluegrass in her youth that early on, Monheit found herself at something of a crossroads 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 a while, I thought, 'Man, do I want to be the next Maura O'Connell?'" she said, referring to the Ireland-born folk singer who established a strong bluegrass/Americana fan base after moving 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," she said of O'Connor's 2003 album of Gypsy jazz and swing music that had Monheit singing the standards 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 featured. 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 Let's Get Lost, his 2002 album of Jimmy McHugh songs.
That project — in particular, Monheit's beautifully hushed reading of Too Young to Go Steady — reflects the intimacy of her own fine recordings. She is more than at home in elegant orchestral settings, but it is in small combos, such as 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: Monheit and Montalbano are husband and wife. But the birth of the couple's son, Jack, in 2008 underscored the sense of kinship she felt 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."