The Songbook Sessions - Ella Fitzgerald

When Jane Monheit’s The Songbook Sessions, Ella Fitzgerald landed on my doorstep with its super-glamorous cover photo of the leader and its ominously retro title, I cringed a bit. Monheit has been an imposing voice and canny leader since her emergence in the late 1990s, but she has always seemed like one of the new jazz singers who might be forever stuck in the past. This new recording looked, on the surface, like precisely that, a doubled-down dive into yesterday.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Monheit’s latest is a collaboration with trumpeter and producer Nicholas Payton, and it presents batch of tunes that Fitzgerald famously recorded. Unlike other “songbook” collections, however, this one seeks not to be a throwback. Instead, as Payton explains in his candid and colloquial liner notes, this project challenges both the songs and the singer to stand up to arrangement and ideas that are more forward-looking. Not that it’s a brash record, avant-garde or otherwise on some hip hop edge, but it is not what it would first appear to be.

Payton did most of the arrangements for Monheit’s trio plus his trumpet, percussion, and a dash of Brandee Younger on harp. They fuse modern jazz, bossa-nova, funk, and moody impressionism. In no case are they stale or locked into the 1950s. The vocal performances that match these arrangements are equally creative and expressive, suggesting that Monheit the “jazz” singer has a range of reference that moves beyond Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald and into the present. In some cases, Monheit’s work moves pleasingly into the daring.

“Ill Wind (You’re Blowing Me No Good)” is probably the wildest thing on Songbook, a slow drag that puts Payton and Monheit in a tight duet together, each growling and bending notes, two lines of melody that fray and smear all over the musical canvas. For the singer, it must be her most “out” performance, the words themselves mostly distorted by her vocal experimentation. I’m not sure that I love it, but I love that Jane Monheit is going for it, bending the rules, and bending them on an Ella Fitzgerald tribute project. A “songbook” project.

Other songs are also bold, but in different ways. The first tune out of the gate, “All Too Soon”, starts with a strut powered by woodblock groove, funky acoustic bass, and electric piano. It’s not a radical take on a standard, nothing you might not have heard another singer do recently, but it has a cocky confidence: Monheit purrs and insinuates the vocal, bending her tones expressively and broadly, throwing around vocal color and shifts in timbre.

Bolder, though, is the arrangement of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with a combination of acoustic piano and electric piano creating a thumping, mechanistic groove over which Payton plays the melody. The harmonies beneath the melody are both simplified and altered a bit, turning sour in a few places. It’s an overplayed standard, to be sure, but we hear it anew here. Particularly the music, which throbs and carries some mystery, actually reflects the words and the title. Monheit’s voice shivers a bit. She sounds like she does have you under her skin.

The arrangement “Chelsea Mood” is a cool “mash up” combining Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” and Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood”. And it provides a good example of how Payton’s cool, mellow sound acts throughout the record as the honey to Monheit’s vinegar voice. On the end of the tune, reprising “Bridge”, the two timbres approach each other and turn into one sumptuous whole.

Not that Monheit is always vinegary here. On “Something’s Gotta Give”, for example, a fleet and popping arrangement that shifts easily from swing to Latin, is cushion for her prettiest, most breezy voice. It’s a great five minutes of music, including a Payton solo that teases the melody several times in a magical way. She is very smooth too on another mash up, “I Was Doing Alright / Now You Know”, where she sings the opening backed by Brandee Younger’s harp and the middle over a sinuous Fender Rhodes Latin sway.

For my taste, however, the more broadly expressive Monheit — thickening her vibrato, stylizing her tone and attack, going a bit “diva” on us — sullies a few tunes here. The “All of You” here is perhaps too mannered. It’s a fine line between the freer, less safe Jane and the overdone Jane. Small quibbles aside, most of the vocal performances here are supremely controlled and musical. “I Used to Be Colorblind”, for example is a simple piece of classic songcraft, and Monheit is sterling. “Where or When” is a punch-happy jazz arrangement that let’s the singer jab and bob along with the swinging rhythm, and she is light, fleet, but still rich on the key notes. On most of the tracks on Songbook, Monheit is schooling the typical jazz singer on how to achieve maximum expressiveness.

What’s best about this collection, however, is the philosophy behind it, and that seems largely a product of Payton’s guidance and the fascinating collection of arrangements. This isn’t “The Ella Songbook Gets Rocked” or something equally cheap or dated. Rather, Payton and Monheit have shuffled together classic tunes, a pair of great voices (Jane and Nicholas, featured on most every track), and a post-modern willingness to embrace old and new in a hip blend. To one extent or another, they have solved a riddle of “jazz singing” in 2016: how to embrace the greats like Ella Fitzgerald but still move forward at the same time.

It’s no simple trick, and the result is worth your attention.