Friday, October 22, 2004

Taking a Chance on Love

Jane Monheit

Sony Classical

A wave of elation, no doubt, swept over vocalist Gretchen Parlato last month as the winner of the 17th annual Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition.

It’s a feeling Jane Monheit knows a little something about, having come close to grabbing the brass ring just six years ago.

Back then, Miss Monheit, all of 20, had to content herself with second place.

However, she wasn’t destined to be forgotten.

There have been TV appearances, sold-out engagements and a trio of albums within three years — two studio recordings, “Never Never Land” (2000) and “Come Dream With Me” (2001) and a performance LP, “Live at the Rainbow Room” (released last December).

Now 26, Miss Monheit, who last week graced the Barns at Wolf Trap, is back on the charts with “Taking a Chance on Love,” her fourth album and her first recording on Sony Classical.

Vocally speaking, the chops are intact: a pretty voice honed to perfection thanks, in part, to studies at the Manhattan School of Music.

But that’s just it. Beyond a pretty voice — encased in an equally pretty package (the fetching Miss Monheit graces the CD’s cover in a pale mauve camisole) — “Taking a Chance” offers little else.

The rollicking, up-tempo opener “Honeysuckle Rose” is by far the album’s standout, getting top-notch backing from Geoffrey Keezer on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and the great Christian McBride on bass. (The trio is one of two combos appearing on the disc.)

The Fats Waller classic definitely shows promise of great things to come, but the initial bang doesn’t last.

Miss Monheit and her producers have opted to play it safe — a surprise given her choice of material on “Never Never Land,” most notably her bold, sensuous take on the title track (from the Broadway musical “Peter Pan”).

After “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Taking a Chance” pretty much dissolves into a single shade of gray with a stream of tepidly arranged standards — “In The Still of the Night,” “Do I Love You,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and the overdone “Embraceable You” — that drift aimlessly into one another.

Likewise, a rendering of the toe-tapping “I Won’t Dance,” featuring Miss Monheit in a duet with up-and-coming Canadian crooner Michael Buble (who earlier this year also released his own collection of standards and show tunes, “Come Fly With Me”) failed to muster enthusiasm (Fred and Ginger, for the record, did it much better).

She also covers “Over the Rainbow,” offered as a bonus track. Miss Monheit previously recorded Harold Arlen’s enduring chestnut on 2001’s “Come Dream with Me” but was persuaded to reprise it once more for the soundtrack of “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.”

None of this would be so glaring, I suppose, if there weren’t a slew of new CDs featuring standards — some, frankly, with better arrangements than Miss Monheit’s “Taking a Chance” — arriving on store shelves.

In addition to Mr. Buble, there are Peter Cincotti (“Over the Moon”) and Rod Stewart (the British rocker, in fact, released “The Great American Songbook: Volume 3,” his third collection of standards, just this week).

There’s even Regis Philbin. The perpetual TV talker jumped aboard the standards bandwagon late last month with “When You’re Smiling.”

With her vocal dexterity, however, Miss Monheit’s “Taking a Chance on Love” should stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Sadly, it doesn’t.

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