Great American songbook albums remain a popular fixture, even as musical trends come and go. In some respects, it’s quite surprising such albums in this vein garner the attention that they do. On the other hand, there is something that is timeless about projects that use established classics and standards to fuel them. Because these projects are covers that have been covered numerous times, sometimes they are spectacular, while other times they are good though perhaps not monumental.
For Ann Hampton Callaway, she is not just any ordinary easy listening vocalist. Callaway is blessed with prodigious pipes that possess exceptional personality and a truly divine huskiness. Robust and powerful, yet restrained and cool, Callaway exemplifies her immense talents throughout her live Sarah Vaughan tribute album, From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project. The incredibly gifted, multi-talented Callaway slays it. She sounds absolutely magnificent.
From Sassy To Divine opens in electrifying, swinging fashion with “I’m Going to Live ‘Till I Die”. Sporting a spry tempo, Callaway nails it with her husky, nuanced pipes. This first look into Callaway’s tribute album to Sarah Vaughan is nothing short of stunning.
Next, she breaks into “A Night In Tunisia (Interlude)”. What’s most amazing about this particular cover is the control and the poise that Callaway shows. There is balance about the performance. The restrained draws the listener in as well as when Callaway is more assertive, delivering robust vocals. In addition to the vocalist herself, the pianist delivers an exceptional solo.
Then comes the bread and butter: “Misty”. One of Vaughan’s most notable classics, Hampton certainly treats it that way. Every phrase receives it special and deserved treatment from the vocalist. The listener can perceive the importance of every note in Callaway’s hands, something that can’t be said of every vocalist. To quote Al Green, it’s “Simply Beautiful”.
“In a Mellow Tone” contrasts with the slow “Misty”, quickening the pace and trading generally more legato vocals in favor of a more separated, staccato approach. Besides Callaway remaining on autopilot, she gets sound assists from her backing band, who all deliver superb solos. Following the piano solo, Callaway trades fours with the bass, scatting. It proves to be among the best moments of the classic.
The most haunting moment of the LP hands down goes to “Chelsea Bridge”, one of jazz’s more unique standards harmonically. You could say Callaway really sticks her foot in this one, it’s that moving and well performed. It’s proceeded by a change of pace with the briefer, quicker “Whatever Lola Wants”. “Lola” is playfully performed, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Call this one sassy for sure.
Two more decorated Vaughn interpretations follow via “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Mean to Me”. “Someone to Watch Over Me” has passed through many hands over the years, but Callaway’s take is as tender, thoughtful, and elite as anyone else’s. “Mean To Me” keeps in step with the slow/fast format that characterizes the album. Opening accompanied by only piano, soon muted trumpet creeps in, breaking out into a solo. Following a piano solo, Callaway imitates the trumpet vocally, showing her incredible skill.
“Wave” and “Send in the Clowns” continue to showcase the utmost musicianship that is the standard of From Sassy to Divine. “Send in the Clowns” in particular shines, given the tenderness and care that Callaway delivers it. The backing musicians maintain similar poise to Callaway. Penultimate number “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” certainly swings hard and is one of the ultimate crowd-pleasers. “Un Bel Di / Poor Butterfly” closes this consistent effort exceptionally with balladry.
All in all, From Sassy to Divine is nothing short of magnificent. Consistent and characterized by an astronomical musical IQ, Callaway and her fellow musicians easily do the late, great Sarah Vaughan the utmost justice. There are no misses at all to be found as Callaway covers all her bases like the professional that she is. If only more albums, particularly cover albums, possessed the fire and grandeur that this one does.