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ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY
FROM SASSY TO DIVINE:
THE SARAH VAUGHAN PROJECT

After 9 Records/Shanachie Entertainment Corp.

As with her memorable 1996 nod to another jazz singer icon/inspiration, Ella Fitzgerald, Ann Hampton Callaway triumphs in her tribute. She remains very much herself, never seeming to be awkwardly or laboriously adopting details of the other vocalist's phrasing or stylings on songs they often performed and personalized during long careers. But, finding the more exciting happy medium, Ann here definitely takes on some Vaughanisms in this live set: With satisfying frequency for Sarahphiles like me, the approach to the material recalls the techniques that made the late lady so special. With elegant elasticity, soaring flights to heavenly upper-range register and resonating, earthy deep-toned descents are very much in the tradition. Likewise, liberties, like bending notes and playing with tempo, maintain a sense of surprise when note substitutions or the taffy-pull of extending sweeter phrases come along. Refuting most possible allegations of a cavalier attitude treating classic compositions as mere playthings to star in a vocal gymnastics exhibition, there are many occasions of emphasizing the original architectures of the melodies by drawing out and dwelling—lovingly—on their longer lines and leaps. While some masters of jazz justifiably are accused of sacrificing thoughtful communication of lyrics in order to demonstrate dazzle, delivering the story of the song is very much a part of the Callaway ways and means.

Ballads are nuanced and intelligently phrased with plenty of real feeling. Up-tempo choices are painted with broader strokes of joy or playfulness. Material is relished, respected, and reshaped within the same rendition. With five of the twelve tracks timing out at over six minutes, there's plenty of time for the agendas of homage and creativity, for both this accomplished artist and instrumental work by her ace five-man band (the especially simpatico and interesting pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist Dean Johnson, drummer Tim Horner, with Randy Sandke on trumpet and flugel horn and Dick Oatts on saxes and flute). Lengthy, self-indulgence soloing is not part of the picture, but there are many opportunities to savor the talented playing.

Captured over several performances in May of 2013, it's a vibrant recording reinforcing my own recollections of being there as a very satisfied customer/reviewer. However, not a word of the patter has been retained (except one aside after singing like an instrument), so listeners are deprived of more of a sense of Ann's personality and her perspective and connections to the legend and the repertoire. Liner notes compensate somewhat, giving bits of information in those areas and a few basic bits about Vaughan. But plenty of warmth and affection come through in the way Ann sings and incorporates the Sarah stylings which soon seem natural. With one exception, she's done the arrangements with Bill Mays, the prodigious jazz pianist who worked with the legend in the early 1970s and could bring that perspective. Like the character in Candide, she is "easily assimilated." And it's quite a wonderful enveloping. Our star is in marvelous voice, with some lovely and judicious use of vibrato. The occasional employing of whispering a word may feel a little too melodramatic or ever so briefly an interruption in the flowing, pure sound. But that's being picky.

While the possible choices for numbers is staggering when surveying the legacy of a lady who concertized and gigged for decades and recorded prolifically, some wise, representative picks were made. For historical perspective and the indulgence of guilty pleasures, I would have a welcomed a "What were they thinking?" medley of very commercial ephemera recorded when companies tried to clip the legend's jazz wings to market her as a more mainstream pop singer in the search for radio play and homogenized hit singles. But this is an all-wheat/no-chaff situation and so we're basically left with time-tested American evergreens common to the music folders toted around by many singers. Those who followed the Vaughan career know that these were indeed some of her standbys and standout standards. For others, it's just a solid mix of classy stuff. "Whatever Lola Wants" from Damn Yankees was a Sarah success on the pop charts, in a rather girdled arrangement as a tango with a bunch of singers echoing, but Callaway and company loosen it up for some good-natured, tongues-in-cheek sizzle.

While "Misty" is a must and could maybe make a curmudgeon soften, I was instantly and consistently transfixed by two of the ballads. A riveting dramatic highlight comes with Ann's contemplative consideration of "Send in the Clowns." "Isn't it rich" indeed! It became a later-career Vaughan concert staple. Ironically, this number specifically tailored by Stephen Sondheim after A Little Night Music was cast for Glynis Johns' limited vocal range, with short phrases, was Vaughan-ified in an arrangement to showcase the jazz diva's wide range, melismatics, and sailed to the skies with sustained final notes. Callaway is subtler. The actress in her weighs in here, in this piece written for a character who is an actress. The self-analysis, restrained despair, and bewilderment all are delicately etched, her involvement commanding ours. An ostinato piano accompaniment is instantly haunting and hypnotic; her stinging staccato reading ruefully biting out each word in "Finally. knowing. the. one. that. I. wanted. was..." is strong stuff. The Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" is also sublime, a marvelous mix of yearning and sweet hopefulness, a luxurious spinning of this gem that brings out the best in everyone (and the song). For pure stunning beauty, the combination of "Poor Butterfly" with the "Un bel di" aria from the opera that inspired it, Madame Butterfly, is the heavenly final track, enhanced by Oatts's gentle flute work. Ann's communication of the story and its emotions wrapped in a beauteous emotion-tinged voice has those qualities that resemble the assets of Barbara Cook's mature work in sad songs of longing. It also reminds us that many music critics have opined that the remarkable Sarah Vaughan might have become a fine opera singer should she have taken that route and training.

Jazz with a capital J is interspersed along the way, and for me the highlight is a glorious glide through Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge"—vocalized without words. Toward the end, the singer quotes the first line of Strayhorn's famous "Lush Life." From Vaughan's very early days comes the choice of "Interlude," the vocal version of what's better known as "Night in Tunisia." While the lady soon to be nicknamed "Sassy" and then anointed as "The Divine One" had the advantage of recording it with its creator, Dizzy Gillespie, on New Year's Eve of 1944, when she was only 20, the version here has the advantage of history and maturity and smoothly navigates the melody's tricky terrain.

Ann Hampton Callaway will return to the venue where this album was recorded—the one named after Gillespie, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in Manhattan's Jazz at Lincoln Center—on October 23. First, though, she'll be globe-hopping from Portland, Oregon, to South Africa to London. Next year will mark a quarter of a century that's passed since Sarah Vaughan passed away at 66. But the memories rekindled here make time almost disappear. Even without the connection to the legend, with these timeless songs and one of the very best voices around today, this is just a strong and well-produced album. You could even say "divine."

DIANE SCHUUR
I REMEMBER YOU:
WITH LOVE TO STAN AND FRANK

Jazzheads

My ears always prick up whenever I pick up the latest Diane Schuur album. I've been doing so for years. My hopes rise that she'll find something new to do with familiar songs. Usually she does, even it seems to be different for the sake of being different. Her voice and approach are quite the attention-grabbers as she can be a fearless singer who dives right in with energy and confidence, her clear and strong voice doing vocal cartwheels and high jumps, scat-singing and interacting with musicians. Her latest outing, I Remember You, is freewheeling and fine and fun—and frustrating. Honoring her early champion, jazzmaster Stan Getz, as well as the giant shadow cast on music by Frank Sinatra, she barrels her way through a dozen familiar standards. The With Love... subtitle, of course, suggests the personal warm connection and admiration, just as Ann Hampton Callaway's To Ella, with Love honoring Ella Fitzgerald and Annie Ross's upcoming release honoring Billie Holiday, To Lady, with Love. It seems that almost everyone—far beyond Sinatra and Getz—gets the tribute treatment sooner or later. Yes, look around and you'll find tribute albums to other Franks (Zappa, Yankovic) and a latter-day Lady (Lady Gaga) and the Sinatra tributes are legion. Singing two birds with one stone seems a little odd, since the two in question aren't otherwise connected.

Since the jazz singer isn't vocally recreating Getz's sax solos, our spotlight turns to the album's sax player, Joel Frahm. And that's always a pleasure, as he's a particularly accomplished, versatile and sensitive player. He sounds great here, whether mellow or more forceful. Like Getz, he can nudge and caress or expand and explore a musical phrase and can comfortably and sweetly weave through a track without fading into the background. Diane's singing doesn't really show a Sinatra influence, either in general style or specific treatments of the chosen songs, which are more concert favorites than the hit singles. The exception to that is "Nice 'n' Easy," which is nice enough, but less easygoing once it gets going than the cozy, laidback groove Ol' Blue Eyes found in this likeable light fare. Lew Spence's melody with the very early Marilyn and Alan Bergman lyric comes on smooth and suave, but then turns to breezy scatting, picks up some steam and a playfully kittenish seduction quotient as she purrs the lyric's "Hey, baby." It's kind of fun, though. Her "For Once in My Life" (Ron Miller/ Orlando Murden) owes more to the bright jubilant tone of Stevie Wonder's hit version in tempo, shaping, and phrasing than to Sinatra's arrangement.

And so it goes with the rest of the repertoire: it's swell and swirling, but it ain't Sinatra-stamped. Her take on "I've Got You Under My Skin," the Cole Porter standard Sinatra did in different ways, certainly isn't a nod to his trademark swing version. It starts contemplative (which is a great way to go, in love and unable to resist it), but then it gets to be a showpiece as she sashays and swoops and regroups, suddenly dropping the mood and having a musical field day. Again, it's nifty to hear her wail through any part of the scale and prevail as a vocal wiz, musically hopscotching with glee as she leads the merry band. But in the process of the showy showpiece, a big piece gets lost—and that's the mood and character she led us to believe was going to have an arc, not a merry-go-round ride.

Oddly, with the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful," she all but ignores the song's gimmick or raison d'etre of saying the sound "'S" to casually mean "It's." She just drops it, turning lines like "'s marvelous" and "'s awful nice, 's paradise" to "marvelous... awful nice, paradise." 'S puzzling.

Ballads are more problematic when they start with sincerity and find their way to falling for the tempting tricks Schuur is so good at. One-syllable words are re-shaped and jumps to new notes and rhythms seem random. It takes us out of the lyric's mood and we stop believing she's feeling the emotions described, except in a generalized way. I suppose it could be argued that "Here's that Rainy Day" can have its sorrow morph into anger and frustration, rather than the usual regret about ignoring warnings and "that worn-out wish." There's more warmth and reflection with the title number, "I Remember You," but wistfulness seems in short supply. At age 60, the singer is in fine fettle with a clean sound and much brio and sounds like she's having a ball. There's a fair amount of scatting, which I know non-jazz fans find distancing, dull, or just an interruption. But Diane dazzles in her own way and arranger-pianist Alan Broadbent gets on board like a chameleon (compared to to his more reserved and refined side—and simpler treatments—things get pretty busy and boisterous here, despite the small band).

The Brazilian influence that Frank Sinatra got into for two of his finest albums and Getz was such a big part of are indeed part of this, though there's only one classic of that style: "How Insensitive." And maybe she is in her reading of the lyric, playing the cool disaffected ex-lover, instead of the usual lament and self-awareness. While drama is missing on this handkerchief-free album, that may be wise. The attempt in Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" results in some awkward switching from singing to speaking words. The natural ebullience of this singer and her high-octane energy may be better suited for the rollicking and the swinging, although past albums have found her entering a blue mood with more convincing manner. As they say in the theatre, trust the material and find a good, objective director. (She and her manager and friend, Mary Ann Topper—liner notes say "I love you, Girlfriend"—produced the CD.) Still, there are some thrills and smiles they provide on the roller coaster ride.


- Rob Lester


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