Jane Monheit and Leila Josefowicz

It's doubtful those two names have ever been linked before, and I'd guess it unlikely to ever happen again. Both were scheduled to appear here Thursday night, actually within two blocks of one another. At one time, this would have been an easy decision for me to make- Leila Josefowicz is one of my favorite performers and would have been my choice without reservation. However, Jane Monheit is the Femme Fatale's favorite singer (yes, much to my consternation she's not quite gone just yet) so I arranged tickets so she and I could attend the performance, not feeling too badly about missing Josefowicz this time around because she'll be performing with the SF Symphony next season.

Then everything became tangled in a most sordid way. The Femme Fatale decided she couldn't attend the concert because her presence would likely expose something she has deftly kept hidden for months on end. I thought we were past this phase, so you can imagine my state of mind upon learning this. Failing to find someone else to take her place, I arrived at the hall alone and within a few minutes had spotted the other person who held a ticket for her.

After taking my seat I scanned the hall. Where were his seats? Of course I imagined his would end up being right next to my own and there we'd sit- two cuckolds separated by two seats meant for the same woman. Like something out of one of Woody Allen's bitter movies of the 90's.

I saw him take his seat across the hall- directly in my field of vision should I glance up from the stage. Now, I'm not one who really believes in Karma, but there was certainly some sort of cosmic retribution taking place here, yet I for one found it somewhat distasteful the person to whom it should be directed wasn't even present. Which is why I don't believe in Karma.

Monheit and her three piece band (Michael Kanan on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Monheit's husband Rick Montalbano on drums) took the stage to warm applause and began the set with "While We're Young" and followed it with "Look For the Silver Lining" and "This is Always," all from her most recent recording, Home. Next came a song she hasn't recorded but wants to, "That's All"- recently covered by Michael Buble, but I'd recommend Nat King Cole's version instead. Monheit noted she originally thought of this as a song for lovers, but now that she's a parent she sees it apropos of more than one kind of relationship.

She had begun to lose me with this between-song banter and her version of "Moon River" unfortunately finished the job. Mercer's wistful lyrics can certainly be taken down a dark path and I can imagine the song sounding quite bleak if sung by the literary Golightly instead of Hepburn's lighter version. Undoubtedly the song had a simply gorgeous introduction courtesy of Kanan, but midway through Monheit began to scat in ways that conveyed sheer, unrelenting angst to my ears- and it just stopped the song dead in its tracks for me. It's an interesting, valid approach to the song, but I just couldn't go with it coming from her. Partly because there is nothing believable about hearing Monheit do angst- she had just finished telling the audience her toddler was sleeping in the dressing room and making jokes about how Montalbano would soon be snoring while she was going to be up all night. Sure, I guess there can be angst in that scenario for an artist, a mother, or a family on the road, but these asides were conveyed with warmth and reassurance, not in a way that possibly signaled a fragile state that could fall apart at a moment's notice backstage after the show. It was a Dick and Jane act, not Dick and Liz.

Then, to make what we had just heard seem even more incongruous, she described the next tune, Pal Joey's "There's a Small Hotel" as the "kissing song" because whenever and wherever they play it they spot people smooching in the audience. I looked around, but didn't notice any. Perhaps it was taking place right behind me- there had to be some reason that guy kept kicking my seat. She followed this Home's opening track, "A Shine on Your Shoes," then another tune from Pal Joey,"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and ended the first set with Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek."

By this time I was the one feeling bewitched, bothered and bewildered. Of course this is just my own preference, I know, but I like my jazz singers to be of two types: those who can wrench the listener's emotions using nothing more than their voice applied to the lyrics (think Jimmy Scott or Billie Holliday) and those who expose something about themselves via the songs they're singing (think Rickie Lee Jones or Edith Piaf). Warm and fuzzy banter is a bit of a turn off for me in this medium unless its part of the shtick (ala Michael Feinstein).

Monheit's sunny demeanor matches her voice, but it also removes the mystery in it, and her voice is unique in that the crystal clear, gleaming tone in it always carries a hint of something darker lurking within. There's a shadow against  all that sunlight when you listen to her recordings and it's what got my attention when I first heard her. That darkness came through in "Moon River," but the sunny proceedings (aided to some extent by the brightness of the hall itself, just felt wrong to me. Of course, that could have just been my state of mind at the time, right?

At intermission I decided to take a walk down the street and skip the second set, thinking it would be more or less more of the same. I rarely do such a thing but since I wasn't really enjoying it I thought why not catch the second half of Josefowicz's concert?

I took a seat in the nearly empty balcony in time to hear the Largo of Shostakovich's Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134. Then came the intermission and I ran into Patrick, whom I knew would be seated in the front row. I asked him if there were any empty seats up there, and for the second half of the concert enjoyed watching Josefowicz perform from close proximity.

Leaving the other performance for this one turned out to be a smart choice for me.

Josefowicz was accompanied by pianist John Novacek, whose heavy-handed approach worked well during Stravinsky's Duo Concertant once the duo got past the Cantilène, in which Josefowicz seemed to struggle against. The Gigue, on the other hand was everything one could hope for and her frenzied playing during the Dithyramb was thrilling. The music stand often obscured her left hand from my view, but watching her face was almost as illuminating as listening to her attack this music.

Next up was a work by a contemporary Estonian composer (unfamiliar to me)- Erkki-Sven Tüür's Conversio, which is a jarring, clashing, rhythmic bit of pugilism between the violin and piano that eventually ends with the violin dissolving the last notes in a quiet tremolo. This was exciting to hear and both Josefowicz and Novacek appeared fully engaged with the piece. I would certainly like to hear this almost violent piece performed again.

The final piece was Schubert's Rondo Brilliant for Violin and Piano, D. 895, which again featured Novacek playing extremely heavy-handed and I thought the approach undermined the work to a certain extent. The program notes explained the score calls for each to player to "hammer it out to launch the Rondo" but Novacek never put the hammer down. Josefowicz hit just as hard, and while it worked well in the more forceful part of this work written for virtuosos of both instruments, the softer passages lacked the contrast which would made the more robust elements all the more impressive.

They performed Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" as an encore, which Josefowicz and Novacek recorded for her "Americana" CD (and it was the only piece on the program performed from memory).

After the concert I returned home and found the Femme Fatale in my apartment, dressed in her usual head-to-toe black, listening to the only disc she's every brought over to my place I actually loathe. We then went to the corner store, bought a bottle of Bulleit, and over nightcaps, tried to forget for at least a moment how a love affair can become so distressingly twisted and convoluted.

Monheit's show was presented by SFJazz. Josefowicz was presented by San Francisco Performances. Josefowicz donated a portion of her fee to Classical Action:Performing Arts Against AIDS.