By Martha Wade Steketee
Ann Hampton Callaway is a Chicago girl with one of the biggest hearts in cabaret. On a recent evening at Birdland, on a day when a deranged dude in a rental truck several miles downtown killed eight people and injured many more, Callaway pauses to reflect on the healing magic of jazz communication. Musicians and audience members speak heart to heart, she muses. Callaway’s newest show is full of heart and inspired by songs written for or used in movies.
Callaway is a generous storyteller, singer, and piano player. From the first moments of her show, we get to know her musical teammates before we get to know her, as they take an instrumental run through “The Shadow of Your Smile” (Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster) from The Sandpiper (1965). The splendid ensemble of Jimmy Greene on sax, Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on bass, and Tim Horner on drums play musical tag team on this bittersweet love story of opposites attracting and not quite making it work.
Callaway enters with a flourish, delivering “As Time Goes By” (Herman Hupfeld), iconically-delivered in Casablanca (1942). This is a wise selection to set up her construct of classic movie tunes that comprise our shared cultural memories. The film runs in our minds behind her: Dooley Wilson as Sam at the piano in Rick’s Café Americain, rebuffs then succumbs to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) who entreats him to sing the old song from their in Paris time together with Rick (Humphrey Bogart). ”Sing it, Sam,” she requests. Callaway’s warm treatment of this song with its “optimism and beauty” brings us into her world with one of the most famous movie tunes of all time.
Hoagy Carmichael tunes occupy the next portion of her set list. “How Little We Know” evokes Slim (Lauren Bacall), the American runaway party girl keeping the beat to Cricket (Hoagy himself) at the piano in To Have and Have Not (1944). The ensemble bebops freely to the smoothly swinging arrangement. Callaway muses on the glamour of those times, those movies, and quips that there was “so much savoir it isn’t fair.”
I learned the basic melodic outline and all the lyrics of “The Nearness of You” (Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington) as a jazz standard on Barbra Streisand’s 1967 Simply Streisand album. Callaway performed the tune in the Queen Latifah 2006 film Last Holiday. In this performance, this song is poetic physical love –“It’s not the pale moon that excites me, that thrills and delights me / Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Broad, emotional, chromatic jazz vocals blend with a Jimmy Greene alto sax fun-loving musical duel. She and Greene also later duet deliciously in Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” written first for the stage, then used in a raft of movies beginning with Panama Hattie (1942).
“I’m a Fred-head,” Callaway smiles, and lights into several Fred Astaire tunes. A haunting “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Irving Berlin) from Follow the Fleet (1936). “There may be trouble ahead,” the lyrics intrigue us, and Callaway is in delicious control of her admittedly travel-weary vocal instrument. (She has just returned from several weeks of international travel, and it shows this evening in her vocal power but not in her musical prowess.) In Swing Time (1936), Astaire sings sweetly of his love for a character played by Ginger Rogers, who is so entranced by the lyrics of “The Way You Look Tonight” (Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern) that she wanders into frame with a head full of shampoo bubbles. Usually delivered with a slow looping melody line, Callaway and her group take this tune on a different mellow journey, with a bossa nova beat.
“This Can’t Be Love” (from the 1938 stage musical and 1940 film The Boys from Syracuse) is all sobs and delectable duets with Greene on tenor sax. Callaway honors George and Ira Gershwin with “’S Wonderful” — introduced in the stage version of Funny Face (1927) and joyously utilized in the films An American in Paris (1951) and Funny Face (1957) – here delivered with rhumba and arpeggios and Callaway’s lush lonely vocals.
Just do it, Callaway tells us. Follow your creative impulses where they take you, whenever they take you. In the rich balance of the show, she regales us with “This Time the Dream’s on Me” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer) from Blues in the Night (1941). This time, indeed, the dream’s on her.
Ann Hampton Callaway: Jazz Goes to the Movies, October 31-November 4 at 8:30pm and 11pm at Birdland (315 West 44th Street). www.birdlandjazz.com