Jane Monheit (Vincent soyez )
On such a winter's day in New York, Jane Monheit was California dreaming. Specifically, her thoughts were turned toward the Catalina Jazz Club, where the 33-year-old chanteuse had been scheduled to play her regular New Year's Eve gig, starting Tuesday night and culminating Sunday.
Instead, Monheit, her husband and their 21/2 -year-old son have been virtually housebound since Christmas Eve at her parents' Long Island home — stranded, like seemingly half the Eastern seaboard, by the Pleistocene-worthy winter storms that have blanketed the region.
"LA, I'd so like to be in you tomorrow, but the APOCALYPTIC MAELSTROM that is New York won't let me.," Monheit tweeted to her followers Sunday evening. "Trying to make it by showtime Tuesday!!"
Alas, the soonest Monheit was able to book a flight was Wednesday morning. Reached Tuesday on her cellphone, while en route to buy supermarket provisions for the first time in days, the singer said that she, her spouse Rick Montalbano, who plays drums in her ensemble, and the rest of her band (pianist Michael Kanan and bassist Neal Miner) were "devastated and horrified" to be missing at least one of their Catalina shows, which they planned to reschedule.
"I've had a long and beautiful relationship with that club," said Monheit, adding that this is the first show she has missed in 11 years of touring. Like most performers, the band on occasion has had to scramble to make a date, but never has failed to appear. "I was playing shows when my son was overdue!"
It's probably safe to assume that her fans won't blame Monheit for Mother Nature's mood swings. With last fall's release of "Home," her aptly titled, self-produced eighth studio album (and 10th overall), and some recent lauded concert appearances, the singer appears to have scaled new artistic and personal peaks.
Like certain other singers whose repertory nestles somewhere in the plush middle between jazz and pop, Monheit has prompted a fair amount of critical head-scratching about where to place her. She's customarily praised for her letter-perfect phrasing and warm, sensual, swingy delivery, drawing inevitable comparisons with Ella Fitzgerald.
But those virtues also made critics fret about whether Monheit would grow beyond her image as a comely, vocally dexterous neo-traditionalist, "the Retro Princess," in the words of critic Will Friedwald. The debate was reminiscent of the old saw about whether Stan Getz was "too pretty" a player to rank in the same company as the art form's avant-garde giants.
Such ruminations regarding Monheit may, at last, be over. In an Oct. 22 review of her Birdland show, the New York Times critic Stephen Holden cited the artist's newfound "musical maturity." Rather than relying on "the sheer beauty of her sound and her polished technique," Holden wrote, "Ms. Monheit was a new woman: confident, playful and at ease. Recent motherhood may be a key to [her] coming into herself."
Asked about the impact of becoming a parent, Monheit agreed. How, she indicated, could it be otherwise?
"Motherhood has affected me in every way professionally. I'm better at my job. I've always been a confident singer, but now, unshakeable. A lot of the ballads I sing now come from a totally different place. I'm a happier singer. I don't go to the dark places as much."
Offstage, she added, she's a "totally insecure human being. Onstage, nothing can get to me."
Friendly and forthright, Monheit is quick to concede that she still had much to learn when her 2000 debut album, "Never Never Land," came out, when she was just in her early 20s.
"You know, I've grown up. When I started doing this I was still a kid. I was very naive when it came to dealing with the business."
A number of her big-name elders, however, quickly recognized the dimensions of this tyro's talent. Her collaborators have included the likes of jazz stalwarts Terence Blanchard and John Pizzarelli, as well as the unclassifiable sometime bluegrass fiddler Mark O'Connor, while covering a variety of artists: Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Dietz and Schwartz, Arlen and Harburg, and Bacharach and David, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ivan Lins, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon.
For her latest disc, Monheit said, she had "a very specific focus." She wanted to capture the sound and personality of her ensemble as it exists in its essential form, onstage, in contrast to what she calls "the big, epic, studio-fantasy kind of thing."
"I've made a lot of very fancy records with big orchestral arrangements," she said. "I'll definitely be doing all that again. But we get onstage, me and my trio, and that's not really what we do."
In keeping with that spirit, "Home" includes several favorites from Monheit's live act, among them "My One and Only," "A Shine on Your Shoes" and "Isn't It a Lovely Day." She decided to produce the record herself "because I knew exactly what I wanted to do."
That's a pretty fair assessment of where Monheit is positioned these days. Now if only the weather would cooperate. Still, apart from delaying her L.A. trip, she said, it's been "wonderful" to be a snow captive with her family.
"Nobody's even been angry!" she said. A pause. "It's a big house."