An opportunity to be in on the ground floor of a new cabaret endeavor.
By Joel Benjamin
Who could be a better host for a radio program called This is Cabaret than the fabulous Ann Hampton Callaway? Emanating from the Birdland Jazz Club in Times Square, the first two installments featured jazz singer extraordinaire, Kurt Elling and the unstoppable pop and jazz icon Marilyn Maye.
After extolling the virtues of cabaret—in this case, preaching to the choir!—Ms. Callaway brought out Kurt Elling whose “Steppin’ Out” (Joe Jackson) had an energetic sensuality, backed by Gary Versace (piano and also organ and accordion), Clark Sommers (bass) and Jared Schonig (drums). From the Mid-West, Elling revealed that he attended divinity school but found another calling.
His next song evoked the words of ancient Persian poet Rumi and the music of Duke Ellington’s “Liberian Suite.” The resulting “I Like the Sunrise” was a musically impressionistic picture of nature images backed up by a haze of notes.
Joined by Birdland regular Billy Stritch on the piano with Mr. Versace on the accordion, Elling touted the wonders of touring in foreign countries with his “Parisian Heartbreak” (music by Richard Galliano)
Elling, a bona-fide heterosexual, celebrated his passion for his wife with “A Yen for Jen” (music by Freddy Hubbard) and “Home Cooking” (music, 94 years old John Hendricks) a lascivious look at food which Elling dubbed “jazz porn.”
His duet with Ms. Callaway, “When I Fall In Love” (Victor Young & Edward Heyman) was magical.
Kurt Elling is unique, with a rich but agile voice and gruffly handsome looks that belie an admirable sensitivity. He has a lot to say, so it’s no wonder he was Ms. Callaway’s first guest.
With no less of a rich background, Marilyn Maye, whom New York City has adopted as our own, joined Ms. Callaway on a scintillating program of songs and vignettes, also part of This is Cabaret. Ms. Callaway paid homage to Ms. Maye with “Teach Me Tonight” (Gene DePaul/Sammy Cahn).
Ms. Callaway complimented Ms. Maye on her medleys, the way she combines songs which illuminate the same basic theme, such as her opening “love medley” which included the funny “Today I Love Everybody” (Mika), “It’s Love” (Bernstein/Comden/Green) and “Let There Be Love” (Lionel Rand/Ian Grant) and her “rainbow medley” which, of course, featured “Rainbow Connection” (Paul Williams/Kenneth Ascher).
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Ms. Maye admitted to and joked about having “three husbands and a meaningful love affair” and spoke of her inspirations: Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughn.
Ms. Maye took the old cabaret chestnut, “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Murray Grand/Elisse Boyd) and turned it into a heart-wrenching one-act play and found all the sardonic humor in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” (Bacharach/David). She turned philosophical with James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life” but returned to her boisterous side duetting with Ms. Callaway on “Bye, Bye Blackbird” (Ray Henderson/Mort Dixon), which brought this segment of This is Cabaret to a close.
Joining forces with Callaway and Maye were Billy Stritch on piano and vocals, Martin Wind, bass and Tim Horner on drums, providing rich accompaniment.
Photos: Kevin Alvey (Kev Pix)
This Is Cabaret with Ann Hampton Callaway, Kurt Elling and Marilyn Maye (February 7, 2016)
Birdland Jazz Club
315 West 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
New York, NY
For reservations, call 212-581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com