Sometimes the least known performers turn out to be the best. Such was the case as the 8th annual Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival opened in the Ferguson Center for the Arts at Christopher Newport University on Thursday, April 6th. Typically, the opening concert of the three-night fest features a lesser light from the jazz firmament, with the biggest names saved for Friday and Saturday nights. This year, the best came first.
Vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway had been slogging away on the New York cabaret scene for twenty years when she got her star turn on Broadway with the December, 1999, opening of Swing! She went on to receive a Tony nomination for that performance and won one of the Outstanding New Performer awards at the Theater World ceremony the following year.
But it was those years of cabaret and nightclub work that paid off handsomely on the Ferguson Center stage. Where many jazz performers are overly serious in live performance, Callaway was full of life, humor and sassiness. She was obviously having a blast fronting the CNU Jazz Ensemble Big Band, and she brought the audience in with her. It was like a big family gathering with the talented and clever cousin carrying on for her far-flung relatives.
Because she was singing in the town where Ella Fitzgerald was born, the bulk of the evening’s setlist came from Callaway’s 1996 recording, To Ella with Love. The opening “Oh, Lady Be Good,” kicked things off in high gear, and she was on from the moment she strutted from the wings to center stage. There was no mimicry in her delivery of the classic material associated with Ms. Fitzgerald, but she took a moment after the first song to impersonate two of her other vocal heroines, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Both impersonations were dead-on (with appropriate comedic exaggeration) in both vocal timbre and phrasing.
She also took an early timeout after wittily discussing the fact that she is related to neither Lionel Hampton nor Cab Calloway, to belt out her own hilarious “I’m Too White to Sing the Blues, Blues.” From there, it was mostly an Ella tribute, with magnificent versions of “Embraceable You,” “A Fine Romance,” “Body and Soul,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “How High the Moon.” She used her entire three-and-a-half octave range to pull new meaning out of these well-worn standards, and her scatting would have made Ella proud.
During his wordy introduction, emcee Jae Sinnett smirked when mentioning that Ms. Callaway had written and sung the theme song to the TV show, The Nanny. She obviously felt no need to apologize for having authored and collected the royalties from that ditty, as she said, about halfway through the set, “I hope you don’t mind if I do a medley of my hit,” and went into the short but catchy tune. She also cut loose on a showstopping “Blues in the Night” from Swing! that left most in the audience breathless.
Another high point came when she sat down at the piano to sing a beautiful new ballad, “Who Can See the Blue the Same Again,” composed to honor the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. She noted that sales of the CD single have already generated $14,000.00 for relief assistance.
The concert’s first half-hour had presented the University’s two jazz ensembles with solo space and they used the time well. The eleven-member vocal group---six women and five men---wrapped their sweet harmonies around a swinging “Just in Time” and the beautiful ballad, “Here’s to Life,” before giving the stage over to the big band for flashy and brassy runs through “Take the A Train,” “In a Mellotone,” and a cacophonous Stan Kenton arrangement of “Malaga.” The school’s director of jazz studies, Bill Brown, has a powerhouse of a band, and vocal director Lauren Fowler has put together a pleasing harmonic blend that walks the line between Up with People and the Manhattan Transfer.
For the evening’s finale, the singers came back out to join Ann Hampton Callaway and the boys in the band for a delicious take on Bobby Timmons’ classic “Moanin,” featuring a vocal arrangement by ensemble member Beth Atkins and a band chart written by Brown.
Afterwards, Ms. Callaway gave generously of her time to sign autographs and meet and greet a theater full of new-found fans. She flew back to New York the next morning with an enclave of true believers firmly established in southeastern Virginia.
copyright © 2005 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.