Nightlife

Jazzing Up the Holidays with "The Season"

by Lauren R. Harrison
Contributor
Wednesday Nov 30, 2005
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It’s that time of the year again: time to pull out the tinsel, pack on the pounds and pray that you’re not on Santa’s naughty list!

And this holiday season the festive feeling abounds with Jane Monheit, who offers unique interpretations of Christmas standards on her Epic Records debut and fifth studio album, “The Season.”

She’ll be highlighting the album in her appearance at Berklee Performance Center on Friday, December 9 at 8 pm. (For more information call 617-941-2000.)

Monheit has achieved great success in a relatively short amount of time. Many of her accomplishments can be attributed to her Long Island-based, musical family, which kept jazz in the record rotation. At 20 years old, with just three years of formal vocal training at the Manhattan School of Music, she placed second among vocalists in the Thelonius Monk International Jazz Competition in 1998.

Two years later, N-Coded Music released her debut album, “Never Never Land,” which was voted Best Debut Recording by the Jazz Journalists Association. A host of accolades and albums soon followed, including “Come Dream with Me” (N-Coded/Warlock) in 2001, “In the Sun” (N2K) in 2002, and her Sony Classical debut, “Taking a Chance on Love,” in 2004.

Although she’s been described as the real thing by The New York Times and jazz’s next sultry sweetie by People magazine, Monheit remains level-headed about her endeavors.

“I don’t tend to really pressure myself about anything,” she says. “You have to just approach things as musician. You respect [the audience], because they’re the reason why you’re here, but you have to do what’s right for you.”

Monheit decided to do what was right for her in July 2005 based on inspiration from her favorite holiday album, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas,” released in 1960.

“The thing that I love about it and way it influences [me] is that rather than being super overly Christmassy, it’s really a great album,” Monheit explains. “I just wanted to make a good jazz record that happened to have Christmas songs.”

She did just that, recording “The Season” at New York’s Avatar Studio with 11-time Grammy Award winner and 50-year studio veteran Al Schmitt. The engineer, who Monheit calls a musical genius, has worked with industry heavyweights such as Sam Cooke, Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, and Jefferson Airplane, to name a few.

Monheit also helped co-produce this album, a first time accomplishment she thoroughly enjoyed.

“It was the first album with which I didn’t have creative challenges. It was a beautiful, positive experience,” she says.

The quartet behind the melodies, with whom Monheit has traveled with for years, consists of her husband/drummer Rick Montalbano, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Orlando LeFleming, and Michael Kanan on piano and keyboards.

“We have so much fun on stage. It’s so obvious that we love each other!” Monheit exclaims. “Working with them has always been amazing.”

“The Season” provides a diverse repertoire ranging from a Brazilian retooling of the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,”- to the 19th-century carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” as well as up-tempo songs such as the soulful “This Christmas” and a jazz-drenched childhood favorite, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

“Moonlight in Vermont” is a stellar ballad on which Monheit effortlessly exhales notes like puffs of air. It is the epitome of musical aesthetic. She also outdoes herself on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in which she connects “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”- as a haunting, a cappella introduction. “The idea,” she says, “came from being in airports and seeing soldiers, in addition to thinking about the war in Iraq and about the families that will be separated during the holiday season.”

But all other influences aside, Monheit’s own Christmas past played a part in bringing this album to life. Her childhood memories still gleefully glide through her mind.

“My mother made a piece of fabric that looked like it ripped off Santa’s jacket, made out of velvet or something, and hid it in the chimney”, she says. “[My parents] pointed it out to us saying, “Oh wow, Santa must have ripped his jacket on the way out!’ And my brother and I thought it was the most miraculous thing. We kept it for years in a special box like it was a piece of magic in the house.”

Like St. Nick’s tattered topcoat, Monheit’s holiday CD is bit of magic for all to behold. As the merry music market becomes saturated with many bland ballads by pop-group concoctions, this jazz legend-in-the-making truly captures the most wonderful time of year.

Embrace “The Season.” It’s just right for that neighborhood gathering, or those car-confined solitary moments between shopping sessions.

Jane Monheit will perform Friday, December 9, 2005 at 8:00 pm at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts 02115. Tickets are priced $26 and $36. For more information call 617-941-2000.

Lauren R. Harrison is a Virginia-based freelance writer and member of the Line/Byline Communications creative team. She can be reached at poetologics@gmail.com

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