Ann Hampton Callaway
The Ella Century
Birdland, NYC, April 18, 2017
Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
April 25th would be Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday. Celebrating this artist who inspired her, Ann Hampton Callaway delivers an evening of songs associated with the icon in a manner of which she would’ve undoubtedly, if shyly, approved. Few could “take on” Fitzgerald with the haute control, vocal flexibility, scat prowess, and acute sensibilities of Callaway.
“Summertime” (George Gershwin/DuBose Hayward) showcases the vocalist’s extraordinary vibrato and her ability to knead melody in service of a lyric. Its mid-tempo swing employs six syllables to create the word “high.”
Ella Jane Fitzgerald had a poor and brutal childhood. Winning an opportunity to compete in The Apollo’s famous Amateur Night, she had intended to dance. At the last minute, the nervous young girl decided to sing Hoagy Carmichael and Sammy Lerner’s “Judy” and brought the house down. In 1935, she joined The Chick Webb Band for $12.50 a week. A mere three years later, at the age of 21, she recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The 78 rpm disc sold one million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.
Finely honed versions of Ray Noble’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” and Harry Warren/Mack Gordon’s “The More I See You” follow. “…I used to lie awake and wonder/If there could be/A someone in this wide world/Just made for me…” Callaway sings in the Noble number, smooooth and smiling as if talking about someone in particular. “…The more I see you/As years go by…” she sings in the second number, phrase arcing over her head like a rainbow. Octaves dip as if partnered in a slow dance, being held at the small of a back.
“(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It” (“Mr. Paganini”) by Sam Coslow “highlighted Ella’s great scatting and impish personality.” Perched on a stool, Callaway interprets every verse differently, from lingering to surging to rapid-fire scat, each word winking, each sound pristine. The song ends with a bump ‘n’ grind as if dragging a feather boa down the runway. Whoah, oh yeah…
We hear about the death of Chick Webb, Fitzgerald’s mutually admiring relationship with Frank Sinatra, and her marriage to bassist Ray Brown. “Ella was heartbroken” when that relationship fell apart. “Body and Soul” (Johnny Green/Edward Heyman/Robert Sour/Frank Eyton) begins with four bars of gorgeous a cappella and tiptoeing piano. Callaway shares thoughts as if she’s just thinking them. For a moment at “…my life a wreck you’re making,” both hands clutch the mic; “…I’m yours”…goes on and on; “…surrender…” is a plea. Dean Johnson’s pithy bass gives the number additional soul. The musician leans over his instrument as if around its/her shoulders, bobbing slightly, eyes down. “That’s what the magic of Ella is about, living in the moment,” our hostess comments.
“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” (Cole Porter) with circling brushes, stroked piano, and a masterful hesitance between lyrics, is filled with love and regret. Benny Benack III’s mournful horn works wonderfully here, as he bends back, bends knees and wails. (There are other numbers I find him, though skilled, intrusively bright.) Callaway goes up an octave on “…goodbye…” as if addressing the heavens. Beautiful.
Tonight’s signature make-it-up-on-the-spot parentheses is an “Ella-esque Improv with Blues in F Bows.” The audience calls out Fitzgerald associations—descriptive words and associations—the latter making original lyrics more difficult. Our surprise here is not the performer’s well-known facility, but drummer Tim Horner’s excellent vocal scat—a treat.
Vocal duets with pianist Matt Baker standing in for Sinatra (fine, mellow, muted trumpet accompaniment) and trumpet player Benack replacing Louis Armstrong are disappointing. Neither man can hold his own with Callaway, and Benack does his best to upstage. Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” is vocal stunt flying. Though it sounds splendid, I take issue with wistful lyrics that arrive with tone and tempo in contradiction.
By the 1990s, Ella had lost both legs and endured quintuple bypass surgery. She’d recorded over 200 albums. “The First Lady of Song” died in her Beverly Hills home in 1996. This thoroughly entertaining show is laced with just enough biography to give us a sense of the vocalist’s watershed moments.
Ann Hampton Callaway delivers in spades.
Ann continues at Birdland through April 22.