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CABARET LIFE NYC: Running Out of Superlatives to Review Ann Hampton Callaway's Recent Sarah Vaughn Tribute Run


Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

It's taken me two weeks to write this review of Ann Hampton Callaway's recent 8-shows-in-four-days run at Dizzy's Jazz Club at Lincoln Center, where she paid musical tribute to the late, great Sarah Vaughan, and I hope you buy the reason for such procrastination. Since late September last year, I've now seen four different Callaway cabaret shows at three different venues and reviewed two of them and, well, writing about how terrific Ann is on a cabaret/nightclub stage is getting a bit difficult as well as boring. I mean, I'm running out of words in my personal thesaurus to describe Callaway's consistent excellence, not to mention how she seems to provide a periodic master class in cabaret performance. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I needed to prove I was up to this reviewing challenge, and a show as wonderful as From Sassy to Divine: A Celebration of Sarah Vaughan deserved more kudos on what MSNBC political show host Rachel Maddow calls, "The Internet Machine."

Ann Hampton Callaway has been doing her thing in lounges, bars, cabarets, nightclubs, and concert halls for around 30 years and I have been reviewing cabaret shows for just about three. Yet I feel really lucky that I'm catching Callaway in what seems like her absolute performing and singing prime. Whether it's caressing the Streisand Songbook (which last year earned her two awards), baring her soul and musicality in a show featuring her own compositions, producing deliciously jazzy jaunts at Birdland, or making an audience's collective head spin with mesmerizing dates at Dizzy's, Callaway seems to be in the performing comfort zone of her life, in her best voice ever, and exuding complete joy in entertaining. Sarah Vaughan obviously isn't the only singer to have gone from "sassy" to "divine." In the world of cabaret and nightclub performing, Ann Hampton Callaway has become "The People's Diva."

Callaway has a finely tuned instinct about what material works for her voice and personality and Sarah Vaughan's rich sounds that range from soulful lower register notes to a smoky, sinuewy alto to jazzy mezzo soprano swings are an ideal fit for Callaway's flexible instrument. When the statuesque Ann took the stage for the Saturday 7:30 show on May 4, she blended in perfectly with the near-twilight grandeur of the East Side Manhattan skyline coming through the window behind the stage, at what she called, "The sexiest nightclub in the cosmos." With a solid five-piece band that included her Musical Director Ted Rosenthal on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, Tim Horner on drums, and Randy Sandke and Dick Oatts on various horns and woodwinds, the sassy part of the show began with the jazzy, uptempo "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die" and the swinging "Day In Day Out. Then Ann could have been describing herself when she then talked about Vaughan's "seductive, voluptuous, sensuous voice," before embarking on a romantic, close-dance-inducing Dizzy Gillespie/Raymond Leveen song, "A Night In Tunisia." Callaway is a bit underrated as a song interpreter and provided another example of that when she used her entire range and layered lovely colors onto the Errol Garner/Johnny Burke classic "Misty," a song that has never done much for me, but which I loved hearing through Ann's vocal prism (Oatts provided nice flute backup on this one). (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

The band riffed throughout and Ann brought in her cool scatting on Duke Ellington's bluesy and jazzy "In A Mellow Tone, and as the sun was setting behind her, Callaway became positively luminescent on Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," a wistful jazz instrumental during which Ann turned her supple voice into a different kind of horn and blended in with the band to create an orchestral opus. Then Callaway played "Whatever Lola Wants," from Damn Yankees as a cabaret cougar, both seductive and sassy to a charmed gent in the audience down front. (Full disclosure alert: I was very jealous of the guy on that one.) But one of the show's highlights, at least for me, came next when Callaway offered up a jazzy and languid "Someone to Watch Over Me." As darkness was descending on the East Side behind the singer, I felt like I was watching a scene in Woody Allen's classic film Manhattan, with Callaway as a rhapsody in blue.

Callaway was fortunate enough to see one of her idol's last performances at the Blue Note in 1989, around the time Vaughan had learned she had an advanced stage of lung cancer (damn, those cigarettes!). Among Vaughan's signature songs in those later years was Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." Again, while it has never been one of my favorites, Callaway's jazzy ballad interpretation was reverential and entrancing. After a bouncy medley finale of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love"/"That's All," Ann's encore was "Poor Butterfly," the 1916 Raymond Hubbell/John L. Golden song that was inspired by Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Callaway's deep-noted delivery on this one was, well, like buttah.

During each night of Callaway's four-night Dizzy's run, she did two sets and performed at least six songs (including classics like Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things" and "Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave") that weren't on the set list for both shows. Turns out that all eight sets were being recorded for a future CD release. Wait a minute, does this mean I'm going to have to come up with different superlatives for the CD review? Damn, I better keep that trusty thesaurus handy.

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff

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