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Ann Hampton Callaway Swings Blues Alley

Franz A. Matzner By

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Where many of today
Ann Hampton Callaway
Blues Alley
Washington, DC
September 14, 2006

Showmanship is a rare commodity in the jazz world today. Too many performers believe it contradicts true artistry. In some cases they may be right. But add a healthy dose of real talent and the two can offer a winning combination. Throw in a bigger than life personality, a biting sense of humor, and a powerful set of lungs and you have Ann Hampton Callaway, whose Thursday night performance at Blues Alley landed somewhere between cabaret camp and heartfelt musicianship. Successful in either mode—or perhaps by blending the two—Callaway garnered a rare standing ovation from a notoriously chair-bound crowd, earned in part by her willingness to let loose and have fun.

Callaway opened the show with a track from her latest release, Blues in the Night, and her ethic of entertainment became readily apparent as she delivered this heavily swung, snappy tune with high energy and infectious good humor. Callaway then introduced her band, pausing to launch into a stand-up worthy monologue filled with self-deprecating humor, political commentary, and a stream of one-liners. Where many of today's artists seem to feel burdened by audience interaction, hamming it up in order to knock audiences out of their stuck-to-the-seats attitudes is clearly Callaway's raison d'etre—whether she accomplishes the task with bawdy jokes or her vocal talents.

Staying in high-gear, Callaway jumped next into another crowd-pleasing romp, the almost painfully accurate, self-reflective original titled "I'm Too White to Sing the Blues Blues . Showcasing her wit and verbal acuity, this tune could almost be offensive if it weren't so deftly handled, the at times pointed social commentary softened by humor and an over-the-top delivery. Still, enough thought provoking identity politics lies beneath the surface of this tune to make you squirm in your seat while you grin.

Next Callaway took a sharp left turn into more sentimental territory to delve into the ballad "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most , utilizing her huge range to devastating effect. Here, a different picture began to emerge, and it became clear that there are many parts to the Callaway personality, and perhaps her most striking gift is the ability to blend them and blur them, making a marvelously entertaining evening out of her exploration of the American songbook's diversity.

Turning on her head yet again, Callaway followed this up with another up-tempo tune titled, "Its Hip to Be Happy , the overwhelmingly positive message of which would have seemed excessive if it weren't for Callaway's decision to segue straight into another ballad, this time deliciously twisting Cole Porter's "Its All Right With Me into a paean for one-night-stands that located disturbingly modern forms of alienation in this classic tune. The highlight of the night, Callaway revealed her immense vocal abilities and skill with arrangement, as well as the deeper pools which lie beneath her boisterous exterior.

After lingering over Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone and a take on Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon , Callaway then returned to her extrovert self for a rapid fire rendition of "Lover Come Back to Me . Callaway then closed the night by stepping behind the piano to improvise a tune made-up after interviewing audience members about their personal lives—and getting remarkably frank answers. Callaway tinkled away on the piano and threw out one innuendo driven line after the next, eliciting audience guffaws left and right as she carefully tread the line between jovial ribaldry and mocking acerbity.

Referring to herself twice during the night as the "bondage ballad queen , Callaway certainly earned the title, captivating her audience as much with her capacity to bend and break audience expectations as her facility with musical notes. Those who resist her stylistic excesses may find much wanting, but give in, and you're guaranteed a satisfying ride.

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