Monheit weaves musical spell at The Smith Center

Jane Monheit uses her voice to do more than sing: she swings, she glides, she can be saucy, tell a story, be funny, be breathlessly sensual, even reduce her audience to tears. She did all of this and more in her 90-minute show Friday at Cabaret Jazz.

The small venue at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts was packed, both downstairs and gallery. Some of the audience was there to see and hear Monheit for the first time. Others had seen her here on as many as three other occasions in the past two years. For them, this time was very different.

First, this show was all hers, no one else but pianist Michael Kanan occupied the spotlight. (Oh, there was one surprise guest, but more about that later.) Second, she gave the impression this show was rather spontaneous, and third, she and Kanan gave a clinic on how two individual artists can virtually read each other’s minds with exceptional collaborative results.

She began with the Ella Fitzgerald classic “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?” complete with two scat verses reflective of Ella herself. A smooth transition led to the heart-wrenching “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year.” Monheit’s treatment of the sad words was a preview of what was to come in the realm of ballads throughout the evening.

Later in the set she did a tribute to the late Judy Garland, which she introduced as a “rejection medley.” It included Jerome Kern’s “Bill,” George Gershwin’s “But Not For Me” and “The Man That Got Away” by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin.”

Two years after the death of Oscar Hammerstein II, Richard Rodgers composed both music and words for a Broadway show called “No Strings.” The show ran nearly 600 performances and won a smattering of awards including the Tony for best original score. Its most memorable song by far is “The Sweetest Sounds,” which Monheit did crisply but with great respect for the excellent words.

The promised surprise guest turned out to be Las Vegas’ own Clint Holmes, who joined Monheit for what proved to be the show’s best and most emotion-packed musical moment, Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” While billed as a duet, this was really a three-part invention incorporating Monheit, Holmes and Kanan. The singers held back no feelings, and Kanan held it all together ideally. He has worked with Monheit for many years and the two are a perfect musical fit. Holmes performs with Monheit often, so there are seldom any surprises between them.

After Holmes left the stage, Monheit turned to Rodgers and Hart for “There’s a Small Hotel,” a light romantic story-song to which she applied an easy, gentle swing feel in contrast to the straight-ahead soaring jazz interpretation with which she treated Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” to end the set.

An encore was demanded and Monheit and Kanan obliged with the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” As he had done several times throughout the show, Kanan improvised a couple of choruses solo and, as he had done earlier, worked in brief, recognizable snippets from other tunes. This time his use of “Lullaby of Birdland” produced some smiles.

In the past few weeks The Smith Center has treated us to two of the very best female jazz singers of the day, Diana Krall and Monheit. Their styles are vastly different, as is their technique, repertoire and even stage presence. But each of their shows seems to get just a little bit better than the last one. Thanks for that ladies. We hope you will return soon.