ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY: “FINDING BEAUTY: ORIGINALS, VOLUME 1” (Shanachie 5510)
A prolific poet and composer throughout her career, Ann Hampton Callaway was recently inducted into the Women Songwriters Hall of Fame. Several of her works were published in a songbook in 2006, but of the 16 songs on her new CD, “Finding Beauty: Originals, Volume 1“, only three come from the earlier collection. Overall, the songs were written between 1986 and 2023, and the performances were recorded remotely during the pandemic. The album opens with an explosion of musical light, with vibraphone, guitar, and rhythm section ushering in Callaway’s warm voice on the wistful “The Moon is a Kite”. The bright waltz tempo and the hopeful nature of Callaway’s words lift the spirit and raise anticipation. “Look for the Love” expands the themes of love and hope through a beautiful arrangement by Trey Henry, featuring Charlie Bisharat‘s violin, Cecilia Tsan‘s cello, and Paul Viapiano‘s guitar. Henry and Viapiano were the arrangers and producers for this project, and they present the music in a way that maintains a strong focus on Callaway’s originals, and de-emphasizes the revolving personnel. After the romantic “Forever and a Day” (with words by the venerable Alan Bergman), Kurt Elling joins Callaway for a finger-snapping gospel song, “Love and Let Love”. The dynamic rhythm section of Jeff Babko (keyboards); Viapiano, Henry, and Ray Brinker (drums) makes this song soar. “Information Please” describes the unique telephonic relationship between an operator and a lonely boy. The final chorus of this song is a genuine heartbreaker. Callaway wrote “You Can’t Rush Spring” for Lena Horne—who never recorded it—but the ethereal duet by Callaway and Tierney Sutton preserved here will stay in the listener’s head long after the track ends. Christian Jacob‘s piano solo is a perfect complement to the delicately blended voices. After the title track—a loving tribute to Callaway’s personal and professional partner, Kari Strand—Callaway salutes her father, Chicago broadcaster John Callaway through a setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Revelation”. Next up is a trio of songs about love, hope, and inner strength: “Hold You in This Song” recommits a couple through difficult times (with Niki Haris shifting between background vocals and duet partner); “Stealin’ Away” (originally written for Al Jarreau, but receiving its debut here) envisions a simple romantic getaway that was impossible during lockdown; and “New Eyes”, a song about second chances and new beginnings co-written and sung by Callaway and Melissa Manchester. To open the final section of this profound album, Callaway offers a powerful rendition of her anthem “At the Same Time” in reflection of the Ukrainian conflict. Sadly, this is a song that will continue to be relevant as long as humans wage war. The natural follow-up is the elegiac “Wherever You Are” tenderly sung by Callaway and her sister Liz in memory of their parents and many other friends lost through the years. “If I Were” offers help to those who struggle with personal problems, while “Be the Light”—with multi-tracked backup vocals by Jarrett Johnson—inspires actions for the greater good. The bittersweet love song, “Perfect” closes this volume, but we can be sure that there are enough Callaway songs to fill a few more CDs. Meanwhile, there are plenty of songs here that will reward repeated listening.
NICKY SCHRIRE: “NOWHERE GIRL” (Anzic 86)
The incisive CD and concert reviews of Nicky Schrire were a recurring highlight of the early issues of Jazz History Online. After she left JHO, Schrire moved from New York City to her hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. A few years later, she settled in Toronto where she is now a voice teacher, radio broadcaster, jazz journalist, and singer/songwriter. The title of her new digital-only album “Nowhere Girl” was inspired by her global relocations and the lessons learned along the way. The title tune opens the album, and it is surprisingly light-hearted, with Schrire’s lean and flexible voice moving easily from lyrics to scat over the comforting alto sax of Tara Davidson and the churning rhythm of Myriad3 (Chris Connelly, piano; Dan Fortin, bass; Ernesto Cervini, drums). “Traveler” tells of a love affair that has deteriorated due to long periods apart. Schrire’s understated delivery conveys her plight without any extraneous emotions. In the middle of her pastoral “A Morning”, the time dissipates as Schrire creates an improvisation based on bird calls. She doesn’t mimic the birds but rather incorporates the avian music into her tonal invention. “Closer to the Source” is another ode to nature while “This Train” takes her to New York City and the many difficulties of daily life in a large metropolis. “Father” brings us back out in the open air with a tale of a patriarch who may or may not have dementia but nonetheless delights in spending the day collecting fruit from an orchard and bringing it home to his family. Schrire’s warm, soaring vocal paints the picture of a dad loved despite any perceived or diagnosed faults. “In Paris” tells us that the City of Light holds other delights besides romance, even though the interlaced lines of Schrire and Davidson evoke the image of a dancing couple. Anna McGarrigle‘s classic “Heart Like a Wheel” (performed with guest vocalist Laila Biati) offers a gentle reminder that love isn’t everything, a point further emphasized with Schrire’s deadpan song “Love is for the Birds”. The spare voice/piano duet on “Keep it Simple” advises us to shut out the outside noise to focus on self-growth and development. The pinched notes and rhythms of Julio Sigauque‘s guitar introduce the final track “My Love”, a tribute to her former home, South Africa. One of the lines—I would like to go back home and raise a family of my own/Relive my youth, discover all those halcyon days—raises the question of whether Schrire might be preparing to move again. Wherever her next move takes her, she has proven that her multiple talents will bring her success and happiness. All we can do is wish her the best, and hope that we can continue to share her joys through her music.
NICOLE ZURAITIS: “HOW LOVE BEGINS” (Outside In 2313)
Love affairs are the perfect subject for song cycles, and in her brief liner notes, Nicole Zuraitis admits that her album might have been titled “How Love Begins…and Ends”. Even without the final two words on the cover, the titles of the cycle’s two halves—oil and water—hint that we’re in for an emotional roller coaster. The album opens with a sexy blues, “The Good Ways”, with Zuraitis purring the sensual lyrics over the enticing groove of the rhythm section (Maya Kronfeld, organ; Zuraitis, piano; Gilad Hekselman, guitar; Christian McBride, bass; Dan Pugach, drums). The eternal theme of love is illustrated in the next two tracks, “Travel”–set to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay by Zuraitis and Cyrille Aimée—and “Reverie”, an adaptation of Claude Debussy‘s melody, with lyrics by Zuraitis. The vocal style gets in the way of the poetry on the Millay, as Zuraitis’ diction gets covered by her movements on and off-mic, coupled with the pulsations of the band. The Debussy gets everything back on track, with a rhythm feel shifting back and forth from broken to straight swing. Hekselman’s guitar travels through several styles during his astounding solo. “Let Me Love You” is not the Bart Howard song but an intimate original about a woman pleading with her lover for his undivided attention. Hekselman’s straight-ahead guitar accompaniment displays another facet of his wide-ranging talent. “Burn” closes the first half; it is a brightly paced tune with despondent lyrics telling how a woman finally gives up hope on her relationship. McBride’s stunning technique is on full display here, both in his quick walking bass behind the vocal and in a finger-busting solo in the middle. “Water” opens with an adaptation of an ancient Hebrew poem, “Two Fishes”. Zuraitis transforms into a modern-day Peggy Lee for a delightful vocal, with guest pianist David Cook taking an inspired solo over McBride’s rock-solid bass. With Cook still onboard, and Zuraitis transforming into a torch singer, “Well Planned, Well Played” outlines the various elements that led to the breakup. Somehow, the heart rebounds and in “20 Seconds” our heroine has fallen in love again. The fire imagery from the album’s first song returns, but the lyric recognizes that connecting with this partner could be a very bad decision. “Like Dew” seems to confirm that thought, but it takes an evening out to prove the point. Still, Zuraitis’ sensitive reading of her original lyrics helps us to understand the mindset of the heroine. The final two songs, “The Garden” and “Save It for a Rainy Day” turn to nature for the answers. And sure enough, the cloudy skies bring the rain, the rain revitalizes the soil, and the flowers of love will bloom again. Still, the heroine’s heart does not want to wait and she hopes that love will return sooner rather than later. This elegant concept album brings a fresh approach to a familiar narrative. Get this album and listen to it in its entirety. Nicole Zuraitis will take you on a thrilling and unforgettable journey.