No one vocalist — nor several — could fully convey the majesty of Sarah Vaughan's art.
But the trio of singers who converged on Orchestra Hall before a capacity audience Friday evening came mighty close.
Not that Dee Alexander, Ann Hampton Callaway or Rene Marie tried to mimic a performer whose voluptuous voice had no equal. But by addressing much of Vaughan's repertoire in the company of Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra, the singers evoked the range of Vaughan's instrument, the luxuriance of her tone and the swooping glory of her phrasing.
Vaughan died in 1990, at age 66, and the value of her work only has appreciated over time, the singer ranking alongside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae as jazz vocalists who redefined the art form.
Callaway opened the program, the nature of her instrument — with its bell-like high notes and throaty low ones — coming closest to the character of Vaughan's sound. That much was apparent on Callaway's superb 2014 album, "From Sassy to Divine: The Sarah Vaughan Project," but all the more on this occasion. Callaway lavished sumptuous colors on "I'm Gonna Live Till I Die," spun silken strands of melody in "Misty" and referenced Vaughan's ability to invent melodic lines during high-flying scat passages in "Lullaby of Birdland."
That's a tough act to follow. But Alexander — a Chicago treasure who apparently can finesse practically any jazz language — found her midregister's sweet spot in "Soon," stretched phrases like taffy in "It's Magic" and conjured all manner of moans and cries, snarls and sighs in the strongest "Black Coffee" one is likely to taste. The pianissimo high note that closed the tune reminded listeners of the degree of vocal control Alexander commands.
Rene Marie has given many strong performances in Chicago through the years, but this time she was off to a surprisingly slow, low-wattage start. Or perhaps the sheer size of Callaway's and Alexander's instruments rendered her voice small and unprepossessing by comparison. At any rate, she didn't raise any sparks until her third selection, "Whatever Lola Wants," and even here, the amusing stage shtick outshone the vocals.
Not until later in the evening, when Rene Marie took on "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues," did she begin to show the emotional intensity she has offered in the past. With the CJO brass riffing alongside her, Rene Marie proved that blues expression has nothing to do with volume and everything to do with ferocity of feeling. The pure-satin quality of her vocals in "My Funny Valentine" and the saucy, sassy attitude she brought to "Until I Met You" (a version of "Corner Pocket") placed her on par with her vocal colleagues.
The dramatic high point of the evening, however, belonged to Callaway, who found new meanings in Stephen Sondheim's most famous and least interesting song, "Send in the Clowns." To Callaway — who told the audience she'd heard Vaughan deliver the work during the singer's final concert — this wasn't just a statement on the follies of love. It was a lament, an outpouring, a guttural cry on the beauty and tragedy of life, some passages sung a cappella, leaving Callaway utterly exposed emotionally and vocally. And all the more powerful for it.
The performance deserved the standing ovation it instantly received, prompting Alexander to wonder if the concert should even continue after that. It did, enriched — as from the beginning — with orchestrations from Vaughan's recordings transcribed by conductor Lindberg.
The evening began with the unveiling of a Sarah Vaughan postage stamp, a fitting tribute to the great one.
Empire Room rejuvenated
Is there another performance venue in Chicago where glamour and intimacy converge as potently as the Empire Room in the Palmer House Hilton Hotel?
Between 1933 and 1976, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Peggy Lee to Jimmy Durante worked the celebrated supper club, which last November presented music once again with a centennial tribute to Sinatra. The artistic and commercial success of that event led the hotel to stage a follow-up Saturday night, "Birth of the Great American Songbook," spotlighting Chicago singers Joan Curto and Ron Hawking.
Curto launched the evening with a Cole Porter homage that underscored the timelessness of his work. The rhythmic surge she brought to "From This Moment On" and the vocal bloom she achieved in "It's De-Lovely" attested to the maturity of Curto's art, with Beckie Menzie yielding orchestral sound at the piano.
Hawking, who said he'd seen Durante perform in the fabled spot long ago, worked the room the way the old legends used to do: with song, comedy and endearing patter. He sang Sinatra classics his way, particularly in Bill Rogers' ingenious arrangement of "It Was a Very Good Year" twinned with "I've Got the World on a String." To see Hawking strolling through the crowd, kissing and shaking hands while crooning "New York, New York" — with Rich Daniels' City Lights Orchestra roaring in the background — reminded everyone of what old-school showmanship was all about.
Clearly the Empire Room needs to keep this experiment going.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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