In her debut at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Ann Hampton Callaway pays homage to a dozen legendary pop and jazz singers who paved the way, set the rules and inspired her career as a keenly poised and polished performer. With a big, beautifully trained voice, Callaway displays a wide vocal range, confidence and self-assurance, wrapping it all around a tasteful repertoire.
Her program, titled “Signature,” recalls tunes associated with Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and Anita O’Day, among others. Perhaps the most enveloping musical portrait is that of “Mr. Paganini,” a sweetly melodic and gently swinging Sam Coslow tune that became an Ella Fitzgerald concert fixture.
The late Mel Torme taught Callaway about dynamics and how to find the surprise in a song, which she demonstrates with vocal dexterity and a cunning exercise in scat singing on “Pick Yourself Up.”
A duet with Lance Bryant, who sets aside his tenor sax to sing “For All We Know,” recalls the unique, mellow union of Ray Charles and Betty Carter.
Billie Holiday, who exemplified the soul and sorrow of a song, is remembered with “Good Morning Heartache,” an enduring torcher from the mid-’40s. Opening night found Ervin Drake, the song’s lyricist, at ringside. “This may sound like heresy,” he told me after the show, “but it was the most intelligent reading I have ever heard. She conveys the emotional heart and body of the piece, and what’s more, she’s got chops.”
Callaway reprised the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer classic “Blues in the Night” in her Tony-nominated performance on Broadway in “Swing,” and she now claims it as her own. No one could deny her the right. Callaway turns “mama’s sweet-talkin’ ” advice into a solidly grounded performance.
Few performers have the luxury of such admirable piano accompaniment as that offered by jazz great Cyrus Chestnut, who cradles the singer with Bach inventions and bold, bluesy chords. (Benny Green sits in beginning Wednesday, and Kenny Barron helms the final week.)
The diva joins her sister, Liz Callaway, at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse on Nov. 16, to reprise their tandem perf of “Sibling Revelry.”