My wife is the coolest. Monday afternoon, she calls me and says, “hey, want to see Jane Monheit tomorrow night?” I had totally written off going to the performance for the usual reasons: too much to do, not enough money for a ticket, we’ll put the baby to bed and have a nice dinner at home, etc. I’m the worst kind of romantic: between workaholic tendencies and not wanting to rock the boat of routine, my good intentions rarely turn up something this exciting. She knows this about me, so it’s the exact swift kick I need to enjoy Valentine’s Day on an actual date with my wife.
We’ve been listening to Monheit since she released her second record, and we loved her third, In the Sun. Last night she delivered the kind of totally unsurprising brilliance that we’ve come to expect from her. She punctuated with honest humor, and she allowed a sizable audience into the rather intimate musical interaction that she enjoys with her backing trio.
These are marks of musical refinement that come from her total dedication to practicing the craft of song interpretation. Monheit has a huge instrument, but most of the time she manipulates it with such great care and restraint that it makes the larger swells all the more exciting. Her technical mastery feeds the tremendous musicality that she demonstrates in every interaction with her sidemen.
On that score, she surrounds herself with a totally capable trio. The pianist, Michael Kanan, shows both sensitivity to Monheit’s every ornament and flexibility to her stretch of phrase. Neal Miner lays down a solid foundation for the group and throws in a few tasty bass solos in the mix. Rick Montalbano holds his own on drums, emulating his wife’s vocal restraint with a rather unorthodox cymbal technique. Montalbano plays through the cymbals, both lengthening and softening his attack. Much as it contributes to the overall finesse and restraint of the group, the very same technique leaves his sound on the skins rather flat. In his louder punctuations, these sounds blurt outside the otherwise tightly controlled sound envelope. These profane interjections don’t detract terribly from the gestalt songcraft in which this ensemble engages. The group is comfortable together: Monheit extends her family affair through the musical and personal closeness she clearly feels with the other musicians. They’ve cultivated this kind of proximity on her latest record, Home.
Guest trumpeter and FSU faculty member Scotty Barnhart stepped in for a couple of tunes last night, giving Monheit’s group opportunities to shine with one of the best soloists of his generation. Barnhart put is usual sensitivity and musical tact on display, and Monheit’s group responded both musically and respectfully.
These were the rules of the evening: restraint, respect, and musical sensitivity. Monheit sets that tone from note one as a strong bandleader. Some of the most aurally delicious moments of the whole show derived from the trio and Scotty’s decisions not to play something, instead staying out of Monheit’s way to let her vocal explorations flourish. That particular brand of classy taste proves rare, and it endowed Valentine’s Day in Tallahassee with a healthy dose of romance.