Recording of August 2001: Come Dream With Me

JANE MONHEIT: Come Dream With Me
N-Coded Music NC-4219-2 (CD) 2001. Joel Dorn, prod.; Carl Griffin exec. prod.; Todd Parker, eng.; Steve Mazur, asst. eng.; Gene Paul, sonic supervision. AAD? TT: 52:49

In the world of vocal music, it's all been about one song as of late: Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's heartwrenching 1939 showstopper, "Over the Rainbow." Forever associated with Judy Garland thanks to the definitive version she delivered in the film, not to mention her countless subsequent live performances of it—a towering legacy that's no doubt discouraged more than one fainthearted singer from even attempting it—the sad, daydream lullaby is now all the rage again among singers old and young.

The tune's current renaissance began when the late Eva Cassidy cut an interpretatively wondrous guitar, vocal, and strings version in 1992. Without question, this stood alongside Garland's apotheosis in terms of the raw emotions that pour from Cassidy's way with the song's inherently evocative melding of melody and words. Thanks to a belated appearance on the British pop charts and a subsequent profile of the artist on ABC's Nightline news magazine, Cassidy's "Rainbow" has given those who come after a new high mark to shoot for. Octogenarian jazz singer Jimmy Scott recently added his voice to the suddenly resurgent cavalcade of "Rainbow" interpreters with a characteristically elongated and emotionally wrung reading on the 2001 album of the same name.

The latest entrant in the "Rainbow" derby is dazzlingly beautiful Jane Monheit who opens and closes her refreshingly unaffected, second full-length album Come Dream With Me with the tune. In the opening track Monheit enters singing the first verse (not included in the movie version) slowly without accompaniment, before being joined by an A-list quartet that includes the always peerless Kenny Barron (piano), Christian McBride (bass), Gregory Hutchinson (drums) and the incomparable Tom Harrell on trumpet. Slowly, sinuously, with lots of rising, higher register peaks and quieter, almost whispered valleys, Monheit massages the song's seemingly endless folds of emotional possibility to fashion a "Rainbow" that, while not as surprising interpretatively or as weighty emotionally as Cassidy's (but then she, like Garland, was of another world), is possessed of a rare degree of both confidence and wisdom. Her airy, at times almost breezy way with this icon of the American songbook, an approach that with most vocalists would spell sure disaster, here works to gorgeous effect. This is surely the lushest "Rainbow" of recent record.

For comparison's sake—and to be yet another hip adherent to the annoyingly deathless trend of "hidden tracks"—Monheit and producer Joel Dorn close this 11-track collection with a snippet of "Rainbow" done by Monheit when she was a child.

The dreamy mood and simple, accessible charms so apparent on Monheit's stab at "Rainbow" continue not only in this album's title but also in the remainder of its selections. Another Arlen tune, "Hit The Road To Dreamland," benefits from McBride's steady bass work (rightfully prominent in the mix) and the reserved but superlative talents of her backing band.

The third track here, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most" (with only Barron and a string section as accompaniment) is the kind of performance that for some fans and critics alike signals that Monheit belongs, not with Ella Fitzgerald (to whom she has been unfairly compared) and the other great female voices of jazz, but with Diana Krall and the glamour-before-talent set. Without climbing down into that writhing pit, I'd say Monheit deserves a chance—she's only 23.

Clearly she's got the vocal chops—now she just needs experience and something to say. To be sure, at this point she is a "jazz-influenced" vocalist rather than the genuine article—"she don't swing" goes the current argument—but one listen to her trying to find her sea legs in the middle of Jobim's "Waters of March" tells you that she at least knows where she wants to go as a jazz vocalist—and that in my book is half the battle.

The other half (and some of the credit here goes to producer Dorn) is that Monheit prefers to work from the bones of a song upward; stripping down a tune like the Ellington/Strayhorn chestnut, "Something To Live For," to its barest building blocks before taking any interpretive liberties. It's this approach that allows her to get away with a surprisingy listenable version of that overexposed, too-pretty-to-live Bread single "If," which she and Dorn are also smart enough here to keep mercifully short.

The way this session was recorded adds immeasurably to Monheit's simple creative method, the engineers resisting the urge to overly close-mike her voice or make her an unwieldy and dominating presence in the overall mix. That said, this disc also unfailingly captures the warmth and nuances of her engaging, approachable instrument.

In music, being dubbed "The Next" anything is always the kiss of death and Monheit's career has already been shadowed by some overly enthusiastic comparisons. Yet, given the good taste and the don't-bite-off-too-much good sense that she shows here, I'm not the only one who'll be more than happy to continue to continue to dream with her.—Robert Baird