Sunday morning coming down

I had not heard of Ann Hampton Callaway before her audacious 1999 release To Ella With Love, but I’m glad I took a chance on that disc. Ella led me eventually to Ann’s 2007 show at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York and then to the rest of her recordings. There is no arguing about taste, but in my view she is the foremost living practitioner of the Great American Songbook.

Through publicist Miller Wright, Ann graciously consented to a telephone interview with me in April 2008. At the time I interviewed Ann approximately nothing of her work was available on YouTube. Now her label has uploaded the whole of her new disc — Jazz Goes to the Movies — to YouTube, where it joins much of the rest of her work. Having seen Ann perform live twice in the past month — once filling in for Ramsey Lewis backed by the Urban Knights at the Ordway in St. Paul following Lewis’s sudden retirement from live performing and, most recently, with her sister Liz at the Dakota in Minneapolis — I thought I would revisit my interview with Ann and add some illustrative videos. To kick things off, here is “The Nearness of You” (by Ned Washington and Hoagy Carmichael) from her new recording.

Ann is one of the most articulate people I have ever spoken with. She is a passionate proponent of the Great American Songbook, calling herself “a keeper of the flame.” Her music straddles the genres of jazz, blues, and popular music, but the Great American Songbook is at the heart of her work. She seeks to take loving care of “the great music of our country.” She wants America to tend to its classic (popular) music, pointing to both the intelligence and heart of the great American composers. “We need performers in every generation to maintain our legacy,” she says, such performers being the practical advocates of “the songs and the artists who have made a mark on our consciousness.”

Such performers need an audience. Is there still an audience for the art that Ann is practicing with her own consummate artistry? The answer is clearly affirmative. When I spoke to her in 2008 Ann referred to recent tour stops in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Naples, where she had performed over four nights with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, and an exhilarating March 2008 appearance at the Terrassa Jazz Festival in Spain.

Nevertheless, the audience for singers like Ann has shrunk along with the forums available to them to practice their art. The somewhat limited extent of her recognition has not matched the extent of her talent.

Expanding on observations she had made elsewhere about American Idol, she said that she found some of the show’s sensibility offensive. On the one hand, she observed, “people love singing and finding a moment in time through it.” On the other hand, the show caters to the perception that “if you wiggle your hips right and apply the right makeup, you’ll have it made.” She lamented that the show displays “so little sense of craft and delight in exploring a lyric.” The terms of her criticism provide keys to her own work.

Ann’s personal story reminded me of the Comden/Green/Bernstein musical Wonderful Town, about the sisters who sought the fulfillment of their dreams in the Big Apple. Originally from Chicago, Ann and Liz both headed to New York to make a living in show business. They turned their story into Sibling Revelry, the live show they performed at New York’s Rainbow & Stars club in 1995. Ann subsequently starred and had a hand in the Broadway show Swing!, the review that revived such music of the ’30s and ’40s as “I’ll Be Seeing You” (one of Ann’s favorites, video below).

Ann’s incredible collection of “signature” songs by her favorite singers on Signature gives a rounded view of her influences and her accomplishment. On Signature Ann acknowledged the influence of Mel Torme on her work by including her version of one his songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” below).

I asked if she felt a connection to Torme as a native of Chicago. She noted a Chicago connection to Nat “King” Cole and Anita O’Day in addition to Torme. But Torme may have a privileged place in her pantheon. She said that when she moved to New York, she would go to see him perform at Marty’s on the Upper East Side whenever she could. She described him as “an impeccable musician” and praised his ability “to reinvent songs.” When I saw Ann perform at the Dakota in support of Blues in the Night she had Torme bass player Jay Leonhart accompanying her.

Ann took “The Best Is Yet To Come” (below) as Tony Bennett’s signature song on Signature. In the liner notes she writes that it “conveys the warmth and optimism that have won the hearts of a new generation of music lovers and are sure to outlive this age of cynicism.” Let it be.

At the top of her pantheon sits Ella Fitzgerald. Although her voice has a greater likeness to Sarah Vaughan’s than to Fitzgerald’s, Ann finds something special in Fitzgerald’s work. Thus the tribute album. What does she find in Fitzgerald’s work? Here she paused for a few seconds before answering, as though she had not been asked the question before: “Her sense of joy is the main thing that sets her apart from anybody else — a childlike glee in performing.” And, she added, still seeking to convey the qualities that set Fitzgerald apart, Fitzgerald had “a sense of mischief.” When she listened to her as a child, Ann went on, “She sounded like my friend, and like she was having the time of her life.”

Ann chose “”(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)” by Sam Coslow as Fitzgerald’s signature song on Signature. You don’t know Ella if you don’t know her version of this song. It’s an ear-opener.

Citing “Body and Soul” (video below) and “Something to Live For,” Ann also described Fitzgerald as “a beautiful balladeer,” although this was “her unspoken side.” Wanting to complete her observation regarding Fitzgerald’s sense of joy, Ann added, “Not a lot of singers have it. She can’t wait to fly right into the song.” Like the terms of her criticism of American Idol, the terms of Ann’s praise of Torme and Fitzgerald provide the keys to her own work.

Ann is also an accomplished songwriter. In the show that I saw at the Blue Note, she sang her own “You Make Life Worth Living For.” (She had to hum a bar of it for me on the phone to recall the title.) Reflecting her voracious adolescent interest in philosophy, the song shows that she has moved on to romance: “If Camus had learned to kiss like you,” she sings, she would have lost interest in existentialism a bit sooner. For its wit and tunefulness, the song could have been passed off as a lost Cole Porter classic. In “I Gaze In Your Eyes,” on her introductory, self-titled disc of 1992, she actually supplied the melody to previously unrecorded Cole Porter lyrics. All in all, as of 2008, she had written some 250 songs.

Blues in the Night came out in 2006. I thought this collection would send her career over the moon. Speaking of which, her rendition of the Rodgers and Hart number “Blue Moon” from that disc is below.

We haven’t even scratched the surface of Ann’s body of work. We are munching like giraffes on the top of the trees. I would like to encourage interested readers to check out Jazz Goes to the Movies. Coincidentally, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey celebrated the thirteenth anniversary of their syndicated Radio Deluxe show yesterday. You can listen to it here. At the top of the show John P. recalled that Ann was their first guest in year one. He picked “Blue Skies” from the new recording to salute her.

When I spoke to her in 2008 Ann quoted Andre Gide: “Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” For Ann, that says it all: singing is a spiritual experience. “I feel a strong sense of grace when I perform,” she says, a sense she first felt when listening to Leontyne Price. “She is a vessel. That’s what I want to be.”

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