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Ann Hampton Callaway

SPAC Little Theatre
Saratoga Performing Arts Center
Saratoga Springs, NY
May 24, 2008

by Tom Pierce

The Saturday May 24, 2008 concert at the Little Theatre of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by gifted singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway of Chicago (long since relocated to Manhattan) wasn't her initial appearance in the Capitol District. She had previously delighted the audience at the 2004 Albany Riverfront Jazz festival. However, it was as she noted her debut in Saratoga Springs - and an artistically successful, enthusiastically-applauded one at that.

It was clear that most people in the near capacity house were familiar with this acclaimed veteran of jazz clubs, cabaret venues, the Broadway stage's Tony nominated “Swing” and writer of the theme song for the hit TV show “The Nanny”. In addition, many were aware of her 11 CD's in 15 years as a leader and dozens more as guest participant and composer/lyricist.

Credit should also be given to her well-established and well-integrated working trio (each of whom has a number of recordings as veteran leaders themselves): Ted Rosenthal on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass and subbing for Victor Lewis on drums, Tim Horner. The importance of this attentive and swinging band was accentuated, as she included a large number of medium and fast tunes in subtly different tempos in the well-programmed 13-song 95 minute single set.

Although she's been a strong admirer of classic jazz singers herself since very young, jazz lovers have become more receptive, as her recordings in the last 10+ years have increasingly focused on this genre. Earlier in her career, she has somewhat more identified with sophisticated Pop and cabaret, like her also successful sister Liz Calloway. But she effectively used all aspects of her background to beautifully deliver all these types of material during the evening.

The attributes that facilitated her excelling in Jazz were immediately on display at the concert: a free and easy sense of swing, a spontaneous flexibility to embrace earthiness or elegance, and warm projection of her masterful instrument that had all the range, power and breath control to enable her to accomplish virtually anything she desired vocally. Some of these qualities particularly stood out on a brief medley/tribute with charming and evocative impersonations of the haunting timbre and unforgettable phrasing of Billie Holiday's signature song “God Bless the Child” and then Sarah Vaughan's “Misty”, using a range of notes from the sub-basement to the chimney top. She saluted the third member of the female Jazz vocal trinity, Ella Fitzgerald, by successfully capturing the virtuosity, exuberance, swing and scat of her challenging 1961 live classic in Hollywood, “Mr Paganini”.

Perhaps the most demanding Jazz-related number she skillfully navigated was Chick Corea's 1971 instrumental classic “Spain”, with its shifting rhythmic and harmonic variations. It is a song that very few singers attempt, other than the most technically proficient vocalists, such as Al Jarreau, who wrote lyrics for it and Bobby McFerrin.

She rewarded those attendees who favor the larger-than-life, entertainment-oriented numbers with highly energized, commanding versions of “The Glory of Love”, “The Best Is Yet to Come”, “Pick Yourself Up” (dedicated to those who were “single & bitter”), “Blue Moon” and “Just One of Those Things” (humorously introduced as “Blues for Rich People”). But perhaps her most appreciated song of this aggressively projected type was her own hilariously funny composition, “I've Got the 'I'm too White to Sing the Blues' Blues “. On this rousing crowd pleaser, she demonstrated her precise musical ear by alternately scatting trumpet and tenor sax solo parts in the instrumental break.

Lovers of romance were not neglected either, as her performance included an interestingly diverse trio of ballads. The Great American Songbook was well represented with a soaring, but touching rendition of the Harold Arlen standard, “Over the Rainbow”. Her initial idol and singular inspiration (with the groundbreaking 1971 “Tapestry” album) Carole King's 1961 “Will You Still Love me Tomorrow” was delivered at a glacially slow tempo, but with spellbinding intensity and marvelous vocal control. The third ballad that the audience was clearly very impressed with and moved by was “I've Dreamed of You”, with Hampton's lyrics commissioned by Barbra Streisand, who sung it at her 1998 wedding to James Brolin, and included it on several of her CD's.

The audience was sent home happy with a memorable encore, similar to one she did at the 2004 Albany jazz festival and now a staple of her concerts. For this final number, she called for help in creating an impromptu “Saratoga Love Song”, from attendees shouting out words or phrases associated in any way with this area. The range of responses included: “Picnics”, “The Ballet”, “Racing”, “Mary Lou Whitney“, “David Hyde Pierce”, “Over-priced restaurants”, “Stewart's Ice Cream”, and most effectively-used, as the song's “hook” - “Elliot Spitzer”. For this improv, she skillfully took the piano bench herself to compose and play the melody, while stringing the audience phrases into catchy lyrics, which she sung in a swinging duet with bassist Jay Leonhart, himself a distinctively funny composer/lyricist/vocalist.

After the show, I conducted a very brief interview with her, in which she described the many special vocalists who influenced and inspired her, in addition to the aforementioned Holiday-Fitzgerald- Vaughan trinity. These included Morgana King, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn and Johnny Hartman, among a number of others. The graciousness with which she spoke to me and also to the dozens of others, who she so obviously enjoyed talking with, signing CD's and posing for photos with, contrasted most refreshingly with the “Diva” image, she joked about in her delightfully self-deprecating stage presence.

My positive reaction to her as a person was reinforced when I considered how extremely RARE she is from a talent perspective - the possessor of an extraordinary vocal instrument, AND the ability to compose music and lyrics that are valued by other excellent singers and her own fans.

Tom Pierce has had a burning passion for Jazz for over 45 years, initiated and fueled by seeing live in New York City, starting in the early 1960's, virtually every major artist still performing. He's been very happily living in Guilderland the last 5 years, as an active retiree sharing his love of music by writing online reviews for a number of web sites, preparing DVD presentations to various groups, co-Hosting Radio programs showcasing his favorite artists and busily supporting A Place for Jazz and the SwingTime Society in a variety of ways.