The payoff of a really good jazz trio (piano, bass and drums) with a vocalist out front is easy to understand: The very best singers use the voice as a fourth instrument, not only for the delivery of lyrics but as a complement to the overall sound.
New York’s Jane Monheit has been on the top rung for a dozen years, since the appearance of her first album, Never Never Land. In Sunday evening’s Savannah Music Festival performance – the second of six Morris Center shows – Monheit demonstrated not only a tacit understanding of the voice’s role in a jazz combo, but an absolute mastery of her stunning instrument.
Her voice soars, swoops and scats, leaping octaves with slippery ease, peeling emotional layers from big, teary ballads like an onion. Many, many singers have interpreted “Over the Rainbow” since Dorothy dodged that tornado, but Monheit, who’s been doing the song for years, absolutely owned it.
To recycle an old cliché, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was manipulation to which we all happily succumbed.
“What are you gonna do after that?” Monheit said to the audience with a shrug, acknowledging the performance’s emotional wallop. “So … it’s swing time!”
A quick countdown from the drummer, and it was “Taking a Chance on Love,” the old Benny Goodman/Helen Forrest bop number.
She also swung through “I Won’t Dance,” the finger-snapper she cut a decade ago with up-and-comer Michael Buble, the lyrics flying out of her triple-time, as if she were a skittering alto saxophone wailing an effortless solo.
Another highlight was “Born to Be Blue,” one of the strongest tunes on her forthcoming Heart of the Matter album (although the torchy album version isn’t nearly as straight-ahead as the live song – Monheit admittedly tends to “jazz things up” when she goes on the road).
She told the audience she enjoyed playing “smaller rooms” like the Morris Center, because the give-and-take with the audience is intense and much more immediate.
That’s one of the great things about cabaret, too, in which vocalists sing, and talk, intimately with the people in the room. Jennifer Sheehan, who opened Monheit’s show (and shares the bill with her all week), is a disciple of Andrea Marcovicci, the queen of American cabaret (Marcovicci’s also appeared at the Savannah Music Festival).
Accompanied by a pianist and bassist, Missourian Sheehan – who has a beautiful soprano voice – tackled (in 45 minutes) 100 years of the Great American Songbook. From “All the Things You Are,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “In the Still of the Night” to a couple of Sondheim numbers and two from contemporary songwriter Susan Werner, Sheehan delivered each song in an engaging, easygoing manner. The audience loved her.
Although she recently made her debut at New York’s prestigious Feinstein’s club, Sheehan is a expressive singer who just needs to meet the right Broadway musical, and a star is born. She’s that good.