Tammy McCann a Voice that Inspires Wonder
Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
March 3, 2012
Either Tammy McCann’s voice keeps changing or it holds more mysteries than even longtime listeners realized. For Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, McCann found new tones and colors, fresh shadings and tints in an instrument that already ranks among the most alluring in jazz. Intent on doing something unexpected with practically every phrase, McCann produced sounds one hadn’t thought were within her capability. Or anyone’s. How can one singer conjure the larger-than-life vocal manner of Dinah Washington, as McCann did in “Easy Living,” but also the dusky timbre and languorous phrasing of Sarah Vaughan, as McCann achieved in “‘S Wonderful”? Yet how can she also transcend those influences, and others, to sound like no one else at all?
Part of the answer comes from the very nature of McCann’s voice, a classically trained instrument that the singer long ago repositioned to address jazz, blues, gospel and other facets of black music. The power of that combination — Western European vocal technique with an African-American esthetic – in itself distinguishes McCann from most of her colleagues. That she also brings to the equation an enormous instrument in the tradition of another great diva from the South Side of Chicago, the aforementioned Dinah Washington, makes McCann unique in music today. This is why McCann finds herself increasingly in demand on both coasts, and why the Jazz Showcase was packed on a Thursday night for an artist still very much on the ascent.
Hoping to make something special of her first extended engagement at the Showcase, where she’s playing through Sunday, McCann has cast the appearance as a tribute to a longtime influence, Chicago tenor saxophone legend Von Freeman. Thus she’s partnering with a different tenor saxophonist each night, meanwhile devoting her between-song patter to lessons she learned from improvising alongside Freeman.
So the spirit of the great Vonski, as Freeman is known throughout jazz, hovered in the room throughout McCann’s late set, even though the 88-year-old virtuoso hasn’t performed publicly since last year. You could hear it not only in McCann’s stories but, better still, in the interpretive imagination she applied to standards and obscurities alike. She opened her late set with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” duetting poetically with Chicago tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, a searcher himself deeply influenced by Freeman (isn’t everyone in Chicago jazz?).
To hear McCann’s sometimes lush, sometimes gritty, sometimes whispering vocals answered by Brown’s deep-and-dark exhortations was to understand why McCann benefitted so greatly from having riffed with a saxophone master such as Freeman. The most accomplished jazz singers tend to bring instrumental methods to bear on their vocals, particularly in high-flying scat passages, and McCann surely finesses an intricate figuration the way a great tenor player would. On this night, McCann also ventured into less familiar territory, as in Arthur Hamilton’s haunting “Strayhorn,” an aptly ethereal tribute to composer Billy Strayhorn. The tune enabled McCann to dip to the bottom of her range, yielding plush, long-held low notes not often encountered these days outside the work of Cassandra Wilson. When McCann unveiled her version of Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House,” with McCann’s original lyrics, she began to assert herself as something more than a song interpreter.
Here was McCann making a statement as jazz inventor, her lyrics capturing the flow of the music and opening up new expressive possibilities for her. This marks an important new direction for McCann, who needs to look forward as much as she does back toward the giants who have inspired her. In both new material and old, however, she’s enjoying keenly empathetic support from pianist Jeremy Kahn, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Ernie Adams.
And she’s in indisputably prime form
JAZZ INSIDE MAGAZINE
Nora McCarthy Music critic
Tammy McCann received several standing ovations during her stellar performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on Monday – the fourth of five prestigious jazz clubs in her New York City debut in celebration of her recent release, Never Let Me Go. With an all star band of some of New York’s finest musicians: Bruce Barth, piano; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Richie Goods, bass; and Steve Williams, drums. Ms. McCann’s finely tuned show was flawless in its presentation.
Four was certainly Ms. McCann’s magic number this night as she managed to score ƒƒƒƒ (very strong) in all four major categories: performance, pipes, poise and program. Quiet anticipation filled the room as the Tammy McCann Quintet took their places on the stage. The comfortably full room included supporters such as Alyce Claerbaut, the niece of one of the most important composers in all of Jazz, Billy Strayhorn.
Ms. Claerbaut heard the singer at a brunch a year prior and became the catalyst that helped launch McCann’s career by taking her outside of her familiar performance venues in Chicago and in Europe and bringing her to New York City in 2010 in order to meet some other influential singers including one of her newest supporters, the respected American vocalist, Ann Hampton Callaway and some members of the Board of the Nelson Riddle Foundation, and the noted jazz critic and author, Stanley Crouch.
In the house this evening were members of the press, several well known musicians and many enthusiastic listeners; all there to share in the success of this evening. The energy in the room was highly receptive and appreciative. The band kicked off the introduction to her opening number; an up tempo swinging crowd pleaser, “I Just Found Out About Love”, as a casually elegant Ms. McCann ambled onto the stage and got down to business amidst cheers and vigorous applause.
She came to sing and sing she did. She came to meet us and invite us into her world, her success story, her song. She came bearing natural gifts and with raw talent in hand, she stepped up to the mic and into the hearts of everyone in the room. Tammy McCann gave a well grounded and even-keeled performance and presented herself as someone who clearly has her priorities straight. In short order her beautiful instrument emerged and continued to open up and evolve as she breezed through her show of familiar and favored Standards.
McCann was gracious, demure, steady and sure in her delivery on every piece which included four songs from her CD. The highly efficient band was with her all the way driven by Steve Williams who accented her every nuance throughout the night supplying the perfect foundation for her diversely rhythmic material; some of the arrangements of which were contributed by Chicago saxophonist Ari Brown who is also featured on Never Let Me Go.
Ms. McCann warmed up her chops taking a chorus over Lionel Hampton’s swinging arrangement of “Green Dolphin Street”, introducing the band along the way followed by a sincere version of “Never Let Me Go”. McCann then slipped easily into Carmen Lundy’s, “Blue Woman”, a contemporary groove piece from the new CD, unleashing another aspect of her musical vocabulary where she is very strong and very much at home, and then strolled on over into one of her favorite songs, a funky arrangement of “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” by Buster Williams, like a kid having fun on every ride in the park.
McCann’s voice possesses elements of Classical, Gospel, R&B, Blues and Jazz and though she has been compared to the amazing Dinah Washington; shades of Betty Carter and Cassandra Wilson were present this evening in her improvising. In a night filled with highlights, her bluesy and sanctified rendition of Lena Horne’s anthem, “Stormy Weather” brought the first standing ovation of the evening. Billie Holiday’s, “Don’t Explain” was soulfully seductive but my personal favorites included a burning version of “My Heart Stood Still” which commanded a boppin’ solo from both Joel Frahm and Bruce Barth and a stunning rendition of the ‘60’s pop hit written by Carole King originally performed by the Shirelles, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”.
The set wound down with more classic greats, “I Thought About You”, “Lush Life”, (her homage to Billy Strayhorn and Alyce Claerbaut) and a hard swinging rendition of “Easy Living” that brought tumultuous applause. McCann’s outstanding performance proved that she is a talented singer with many qualities, not the least of which is her enormous gratitude for those who have supported and helped her realize the dream she is now living. It was with this sentiment that she dedicated the last most reflective song of the evening, Stephen Sondheim’s beauty, “Send in the Clowns”, to her manager, and left us all feeling grateful we were part of this evening with her. – Nora McCarthy
Chicago singer gets set for the (musical) ride of her life
Howard Reich Arts critic
February 12, 2011
Chicagoan Tammy McCann is about to find out.
By day, she shuttles the younger two kids to and from school, cooks mountains of food in her narrow kitchen, and otherwise tries to orchestrate the six lives she and her husband are responsible for.
By night, she unfurls a luxuriant, supple, larger-than-life instrument that lately has had New York aficionados and power brokers swooning. McCann, in fact, appears to be on the verge of a career breakthrough, even though most folks in her hometown still don’t know her.
So she stands at an unusual, sometimes thrilling, sometimes uncomfortable juncture: not yet almost famous, but quickly winning fans in influential places.
“She’s probably the best singer I have heard since the emergence of Dianne Reeves,” says Stanley Crouch, a prominent cultural critic and MacArthur “genius grant” winner, referencing a modern jazz diva.
“She brings all the jewels to the jewel chest,” says Ann Hampton Callaway, a nationally admired singer and former Chicagoan.
“She’s got the vocal apparatus of a Rolls-Royce,” observes Francis Kiernan, executive director of the Nelson Riddle Foundation, which immediately began conceiving projects for McCann upon encountering her.
Mind you, neither Kiernan nor Crouch nor Callaway had even heard of McCann less than a year ago, and why would they have? With no recording contract, no manager, no publicist and no connections, McCann was happily raising her kids and teaching voice lessons, singing occasional performances and assuming that her performing career had gone about as far as it was going to go.
Now, everyone wants Tammy.
“I’m nervous — I could cry at any moment,” says McCann, 43, sitting in the kitchen of her slender, unpretentious ranch home, a couple of hours before she has to pick up the kids.
“I’m very emotional. I want to be positive, I want to be prayerful and I want to be prepared for whatever opportunity presents itself to me.”
But McCann is nothing if not prepared. In fact, she really has been getting ready for this moment since she first realized the nature of her gift at Kenwood Academy High School. The long years of near-obscurity that followed may have been a blessing, for artists whose careers take flight in their 20s often are ill-equipped to handle the outsize attention that comes their way. McCann, on the other hand, seems about as grounded as anyone could be (four kids will do that).
Better yet, her voice appears just now to be reaching its prime. Thanks to her gospel sensibility, operatic training, deep nightclub experience and prodigious jazz technique, McCann these days tends to bowl people over whenever she leans into a microphone.
Or, as Crouch puts it, “There are so few people who can do what she can do.”
None, perhaps, because McCann’s instrument is her autobiography, and its sings of an artist born and raised in the distinct musical culture of Chicago’s South Side, where jazz, gospel and blues have flourished for generations. It’s the place that gave the world Dinah Washington (the brilliant singer to whom McCann most frequently is compared) and Thomas A. Dorsey (the gospel pioneer whose niece, the great teacher-composer Lena McLin, taught McCann at Kenwood).
Yet when McCann was a kid — the oldest of three daughters born to Alice Faye and Arthur McCann, a now-retired Chicago police detective — she was mostly oblivious of jazz. Instead, she bounced in the back seat of the family’s station wagon listening to the Stylistics.
Her parents, she says, “wanted us girls exposed to every facet of music, not just the standard fare of what was given to the black community at the time.”
So her father bought her piles of Elvis Presley 45s, while her mother turned her on to Broadway belters.
It wasn’t until high school that McCann realized that her voice was unusual, thanks to teacher McLin, who still can’t get over how the teenager sounded back then, in the early 1980s.
“She was really just magnificent,” remembers McLin, who immediately saw an operatic future for McCann, casting her as the lead in Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and other major roles.
Expertly trained in bel canto singing, McCann won a full-ride scholarship to Virginia Union University, in Richmond, but became bored as “a big fish in a small pond.” Until one day when she wandered down the hallway of the music building and, as she passed a practice room, heard an exotic, seductive music.
“I knocked on the door and said, ‘What is that you’re playing — is that Bizet?’” she recalls. “The guy said, ‘No, this is ”Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk.
“And I said, ‘Who’s that?’”
Thus began McCann’s turbulent, headfirst plunge into jazz. She quickly discovered Dinah Washington, finding kinship with an artist whose enormous voice and church-tinged inflections bore close relation to McCann’s nascent style.
By 1988, McCann left school without graduating, heading home to Chicago to begin gigging. From veteran Chicago singer-club-owner Milt Trenier she learned “showmanship and storytelling,” she says. From sitting in with tenor saxophone deity Von Freeman and his brother, guitarist George Freeman, she discovered “what the presentation, the phrasing of jazz music was about.”
Those years singing “in the trenches,” as McCann describes them, created enough word-of-mouth interest to win her a European tour with a trio in the mid-’90s and follow-up gospel and jazz tours of her own through the rest of the decade.
But spending the bulk of her youth on the other side of the Atlantic meant she was developing zero profile back home in the States. And singing alongside Ray Charles as a Raelette, in 2001 and 2002, taught her volumes about show business — the experience was “electrifying … but not for the faint of heart” — but also delayed her solo career.
In 2001, she married lawyer Anthony Simpkins, now a deputy commissioner in Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development, becoming an “instant mommy” to his sons Tariq, now 18, and Nasr, 16. Soon the couple had two children of their own, Safiyah, 8, and Adam, 5.
Family now took precedence over career, which was just the way McCann wanted it.
But in May 2006, McCann — never having fully quit music — performed at the now-shuttered HotHouse, in the South Loop. The unmistakable glory of her voice inevitably led to further engagements and, in 2009, the passionate interest of one of Chicago’s savviest music professionals, Alyce Claerbaut.
Then executive director of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and now president of Billy Strayhorn Songs (the great composer was her uncle), Claerbaut was stunned when she first heard McCann.
So Claerbaut — who’s thoroughly wired into jazz across the U.S. — set to work (not for pay, but for love of McCann’s music). She introduced McCann to singer Callaway; presented her to the Strayhorn board; and took her to New York last November, where McCann seduced the Nelson Riddle Foundation, rubbed elbows with Tony Bennett and Jack Jones, won critic Crouch’s deepening admiration and otherwise began to woo Manhattan.
And so there lies McCann’s dilemma: Will she be able to navigate the tours that are now being planned, the successes that are obviously around the corner, and still be a supermom?
“She is so busy, and to maintain it, that’s what’s so hard,” says her mother, Alice Faye McCann. “But in June, I’m ready for retirement, and I would really be able to step in. … She’s got herself a nice little village to support her.”
Indeed, says the singer, “I have my godmother, Billie Gray, and all these amazing women who have made a commitment to me and my family. … And that all came together in this past year.
“The universe was planning something before I knew it.”
Get ready, America, here she comes.