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Review: Callaway pays tribute to Sarah Vaughan

September 16, 2014

Ann Hampton Callaway, “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project” (Shanachie)

Ann Hampton Callaway has undeservedly flown under the radar as a jazz singer. Perhaps that’s because of her successful career as a cabaret chanteuse and songwriter whose more than 250 songs include the theme for the TV sitcom “The Nanny” and tunes for Barbra Streisand’s recent albums.

But her jazz artistry shines forth on “From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project,” a tribute to Vaughan with more than an hour of music recorded live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with a top-flight jazz quintet. The album offers a fresh take on songs closely associated with the legendary jazz vocalist such as Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” and the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Callaway captures the playful side of the singer known as “Sassy” on such tunes as Duke Ellington’s uptempo “In A Mellow Tone,” on which she hits the high notes in some swinging scat singing. On “Mean To Me,” Callaway gets bluesy and even imitates Randy Sandke’s muted trumpet in one scat interlude, with Ted Rosenthal playing some old-style stride piano.

Vaughan was also known as “The Divine One” for her operatic voice, perfect sense of pitch and voluptuous tone. Callaway reflects this as she caressingly bends and stretches the notes on a dreamy rendition of Erroll Garner’s ballad “Misty.” And like Vaughan, she hauntingly sings Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” without words, displaying her full vocal range from the lower registers to the heights.

The closing track is a highlight as Callaway imagines a duet by Vaughan and her close friend, opera singer Leontyne Price, pairing the aria “Un Bel Di” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” with “Poor Butterfly,” a song inspired by that opera, which gives Callaway a chance to display her vocal virtuosity.

Callaway manages to avoid the pitfalls of many tribute albums, which either offer a pale imitation or stray too far from the original material. She has the vocal range, improvisatory flair and passion to channel Vaughan’s spirit without imitating her.

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