Jane Monheit
Jane Monheit
We saw Jane Monheit several times during those first years when she was the hottest new thing in the jazz world. Originally marketed as a singing sexpot, Monheit did her level best to imitate Rita Hayworth, complete with ferociously mannered tosses of her long dark tresses back over her shoulder. There was no question that this young woman had talent, but there was not a more manufactured, posed performer in town.

After not seeing her for quite a while, we decided to catch Monheit's new show at the Café Carlyle. We were glad we went, because there were noticeable improvements in her performing style. But, in the end, she's still just a pretty voice without a clue how to fully communicate a song.

First, most of the silly posing is gone. More often than not, Monheit now stands still and sings with her arms at her side. When she does gesture -- to put her hand to her head or to reach out to an unseen lover -- her movements no longer seem like something she memorized in front of a mirror. The only remnant of that early fakery is the annoying habit of placing her hands delicately upon her breasts -- a pose of quaint innocence -- at the end of virtually every ballad.

Now that one is less distracted by all the physical hoo-hah, one can concentrate more intently upon her musical performance. That, however, is both a blessing and a curse. As always, Monheit's voice is a marvel of beauty and control. She sounds -- as she does on her recordings -- like a gentle breeze on a balmy night. But there is no drama in her voice, no theatrical dynamics.

Everything she performed, whether it was composed by Stevie Wonder, Burt Bachrach, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Henry Mancini, or Johnny Mandel, eventually began to sound the same. Her style is all about the sound of her voice, not about the personality of each composition -- and certainly not about her personality.

There is great feeling in her voice; but, too often, that feeling makes no connection to the specificity of the lyrics she sings. Her worst offense in that regard is her rendition of the standard "Twisted," a very clever number which features Annie Ross' famously funny lyrics. The opening night audience at the Café Carlyle didn't laugh once.

On the plus side, a few years ago, Monheit would not have been able to put over such a moody and winsome "Moon River" nor such a delicate rendition of "The Shining Sea." It seems only fitting, though, that her best numbers are those that she sings in Portuguese, because then we don't expect -- and therefore do not miss -- any lyric interpretation.

Monheit's patter was largely confined to telling the audience that each number she was about to sing was her favorite, which got pretty tiresome after awhile. On the other hand, she didn't talk much beyond that making the evening mostly about music. We have no complaint there -- and no complaint about her five-piece band, which featured a particularly expressive saxophone player named Ari Ambrose. But when the sax player is more expressive than the singer, that's a problem.