Based on the long line braving the cold wind outside the Blue Note on Saturday, mine is probably a minority opinion but I’ve got to call it like I hear it. Ms. Monheit’s recent performance at the Blue Note left me wishing I’d taken a seat at the bar where I could have made a beeline for the door after a couple tunes. Along with a drink, I’d have enjoyed those first few numbers out of curiosity. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough content, soul, or feeling to make an entire set. No amount of Ms. Monheit dramatically stroking her hair can change that musical fact.
Ms. Monheit certainly does have a remarkable vocal facility. Stylistically her approach is a marketable pop-jazz crossover hybrid, tailor made for an audience that doesn’t want to work too hard. I wouldn’t call Ms. Monheit’s contribution "jazz", but music doesn’t have to be jazz to be good, either. Not long ago I heard Cassandra Wilson at the Blue Note and although much of her set was not "jazz" in the traditional sense, it was authentic and deep seated. Ms. Monheit was neither of these; like a Beaujolais nouveau, one can’t expect too much and a second serving is unnecessary. One can hope age will improve her delivery. I know it’s Christmas and all, but people did not pay $30 to hear Ms. Monheit’s most unremarkable interpretation of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Unfortunately, much of the rest of the set was dispensed in a similar manner, without any authoritative sensibility, and seemingly more focused on staged theatrical effect than meaning.
The Norah Jones syndrome clearly has taken a firm hold on the jazz industry. This is lamentable and leaves many of us desperately longing for the integrity of Shirley Horn or Jimmy Scott singers that had a message to deliver and something profound to teach us. Jazz is not just about entertainment or stroking your hair.
Ms. Monheit was at her best singing the Jobim composition "Waters of March", a tune that she imbues with a certain joy. At one moment she even appeared to be actively engaged with the band in musical dialogue. Imagine that! Sadly, the moment was fleeting, and we were entreated to another Christmas tune.
Ms. Monheit was accompanied by Joel Frahm (ts), Michael Kanan (p), Joe Martin (b), and Rick Montalbano (dr). I paid my bill and headed over to Fat Cat to cleanse my palate with some improvised jazz. Interestingly, an unnamed sideman of the Monheit band also appeared, no doubt possessed of the same need to play where hair stroking was not considered a musical contribution. Joining the Spike Wilner Trio (along with Jesse Davis), they burned on some uptempo standards and closed the place with a Monk tune. We all felt better.