In the lush, happy voice of Ann Hampton Callaway, there’s a party going on. Consider yourself lucky if she invites you in. At the newly named Feinstein’s/54 Below, where she’s singing better and lustier than ever, everyone is welcome. She even encourages the crowds that pack the house nightly to sing along. They always do.
The menu for this Yuletide show features the great songs by female songwriters. Like lady architects, they belong to a rarefied club that is still reluctant to admit women. But as Ms. Callaway solidly demonstrates, they’ve accomplished so much already. Of course there’s Peggy Lee (“I Love Being Here With You”) and the great Carolyn Leigh (“Witchcraft”) to get things off to a sensational start. An entire show could be devoted to either, especially the songs of Leigh, a secretary who couldn’t take dictation so she switched her sensitivity and intelligence to writing classics with Cy Coleman. And of course, an indelible impact was made on the lives of music lovers everywhere by Dorothy Fields, and Ms. Callaway elaborates with an exquisitely phrased “The Way You Look Tonight,” with music by legendary Jerome Kern. Ms. Callaway also gives you hair-raising vocal impersonations of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, who wrote a few songs, too. And she’s an adroit artist with a pen herself. Her own compositions are rich and poetic, and the special lyrics she contributes to an Ella Fitzgerald-style scat chorus of Nancy Hamilton’s “How High the Moon” are exhilarating. (The constant surprises from her larynx approximate the sound of a muted trumpet and a throbbing bass.) “God Bless the Child” (Billie Holiday again) and the demented jazz classic “Twisted” (by unsurpassed, innovative jazz singer-author Annie Ross) are examples of compositions by women who, she claims, “wrote the sound track to our lives.”
Devoted to the belief that women have hardly begun, she doesn’t restrict her celebration of women to the past. She brings things up to date with exemplary work by Joni Mitchell, Carole King, emerging songwriter Michele Brourman and a mediocrity by Adele, whom she likes a bit more than I do. Of special interest: a sneak preview of her unusual, soothing and refreshingly intelligent new holiday season CD The Hope of Christmas that I urge you to try, especially if you are sick of “Jingle Bells.” It features a wise, sad, melting ballad by Amanda McBroom called “Almost is Enough.” It goes like this:
It was almost April
We were almost young
Almost every love song tasted sweet
upon the tongue
But tables always turn
And sometimes in the evening when
the lights are low…
We share some sighs, we sympathize…
And almost is enough.
Go to any Ann Hampton Callaway party and you learn things. At Feinstein’s/54 Below, she teaches a lesson in good taste and a class in Music Appreciation 101. It’s a workout for the lungs, a marathon of rhythm and an obstacle course in tempo—and you go away thrilled. In a time of global crisis and daily anxiety, when the tempests boil and the world darkens daily, she offers a refuge of peace and love. This Thanksgiving week, I give thanks for the music of Ann Hampton Callaway.