Concert Review: Ann Hampton Callaway and Kurt Elling at Birdland

When the stars align in just the right way, something as wonderful as Ann Hampton Callaway and Kurt Elling appear on the same bill — a double whammy of jazz power.
Callaway, first up on stage, is a singer of great range, confidence, and warmth. Her easy, straight-ahead delivery was perfectly showcased in Songbook standards themed as Jazz Goes to the Movies. Her “From This Moment On” and “As Time Goes By” were delivered with plenty of swing and scat. Switching to a slow tempo, she created a sensual, dreamy mood on “The Nearness of You” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” She's an unmannered, clean singer who gets the most out of a lyric without vocal tricks and unnecessary embellishments. As is the “new normal” these days, much of her narrative was political, in a gentle and even amusing way. Her longing for a return to happier days was expressed in “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” in the style of Nelson Riddle's arrangement for Peggy Lee.

Elling also dipped into politics with his set list, beginning with a hard-driving, intense Bob Dylan statement in “A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall.” Elling is a master of phrasing, having been schooled in the art of vocalese. He's also possessed of a powerful, charismatic stage presence which lends itself to his preference for story songs, such as the jazz standard, “Did You Call Her Today?” and Paul Simon's “American Tune.” The pièce de résistance of the set was the finale, a tribute to Elling's mentor, Jon Hendricks (who had recently passed), the father of vocalese. Hendricks's version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with modified lyrics, was an extended piece with dizzying voicings, brimming with bop-based scat. Callaway joined in to close out this jazz lover's dream of a program.

Kudos go to the A-list musicians: music director/pianist Stu Mindeman, Clark Sommers on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, Marquis Hill on trumpet, and Joel Frahm on tenor saxophone.