Ann Hampton Callaway sings Sarah Vaughan continues at Ronnie Scott’s, London until 30 September.
Blink and you’ll miss her, but the incomparable Ann Hampton Callaway is back in town for a short two-night love-in at Ronnie Scott’s, finally fulfilling a “bucket-list” ambition to perform at London’s jazz mecca.
Like the No. 9 bus, it had been a long wait – 13 years – since her previous visit, but two Callaways came along almost at once this year: in April, her Diva Power show saluting the female greats who shaped her musical thinking took the Crazy Coqs by storm and here she is paying homage to one of her biggest influences, the unmistakeable Sarah Vaughan.
This stopover on her way home from Johannesburg where she has been playing the Joy of Jazz Festival coincides with the release of her first CD for five years From Sassy to Divine – The Sarah Vaughan Project and in a long two-set programme, she takes us hypnotically, smoulderingly and magnetically through the Vaughan catalogue, hugely assisted by Ted Rosenthal, immense on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums.
From ‘Tenderly’, her biggest early hit in 1946, to ‘Mean to Me’ from her 1950 album and Errol Garner’s ‘Misty’ from the mid-50s, the Gershwins’ ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, the vocal pyrotechnics of ‘All of Me’, from 1957, right through to Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’, from the 1970s, it was one great standard after another.
With a four-octave voice that could comfortably stretch from contralto to soprano and would have worked in the field of opera had it been trained to do so, Vaughan became the most easily recognisable of the great black songstresses of the post-war period.
Yet when I saw her at Ronnie Scott’s in 1977, I have to admit to having come away slightly disappointed: as a performer she did not take me much further along from the magical LPs I treasured at home. The hard-drinking, hard-swearing sassiness of legend did not on that occasion resonate with this member of her adoring audience.
Callaway had a far-more-impressed first experience when having a front-row seat for Vaughan at the Blue Note Club at the end of the 1980s, little knowing that the singer had earlier that week been told she had terminal lung cancer.
With her multi-octave trained voice, one of the finest on planet jazz today and forever, Callaway can easily compete with ‘The Divine One’.
But she additionally has the humour and the interplay with her audience – her frisky connection with a gent in the front row during ‘Whatever Lola Wants’, the hit song from Damn Yankees, was a total hoot, as were her impersonations of Streisand, Holliday and Vaughan herself, whom she also affectionately sent up on ‘Tenderly’ in her Crazy Coqs show in the spring.
Callaway’s ‘human’ trumpet plays faultlessly alongside the Rosenthal trio in a party trick that has to be seen and heard to be believed and, as ever, there is the on-the-spot composition where she takes over on the piano and invites unconnected words from the audience and strings them together in an impromptu Vaughan-esque song that brings the first half to a dazzling climax.
It also reminded us that Callaway is a songwriter of the very highest quality – indeed, she composed ‘I Dreamed of You’, which Streisand sang at her wedding to James Brolin, and heart-breakingly set to music Cole Porter’s posthumously-discovered lyric ‘I Gaze in Your Eyes’ – with more talent in her little finger than some have in their entire bodies.
This superb Vaughan tribute evening is not about that side of Callaway, but if and when she comes back next year – there’s talk of a summer stint with her musical theatre sister Liz at the London Hippodrome – maybe she’ll treat us to some Ann-dards as well as standards.
In the meantime, who’s ‘The Divine One’ now? A standing ovation on opening night should convince Ronnie Scott’s to beg her back to London as soon as this classy lady can fit us in.