By Don Heckman
The International Review of Music

There’s a long history of great jazz artists, reaching as far back as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, who understood the value of communicating, connecting and – yes, here’s that awful word – entertaining an audience. It’s a history that hasn’t had much impact upon recent jazz generations.

When those qualities do appear, the primary reaction that surfaces in this observer is a sense of regret that they don’t turn up more often. That listeners too rarely have the opportunity to feel a part of a musical experience, rather than simply serve as the fourth wall.

Thursday night at Vitello’s was one of those rare exceptions, a performance in which communication and connection were on full display before a packed house of enthusiastic Judy Carmichael fans. And by the time she finished, it was fully apparent that anyone in the crowd who hadn’t been one of her followers when they arrived, had surely been converted to the Carmichael musical canon by the time they left.

Count Basie used to call her “Stride,” and her early supporters also included the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Benny Carter. All because Carmichael – a slender, curly-haired California girl – established herself, in an era of post-bop, fusion, crossover, cool jazz, etc., as an unlikely, but thoroughly authentic practitioner of early jazz piano styles in general, and stride piano, in particular.

Nearly three decades after she first came to prominence, Carmichael’s mastery of stride style – with all its note-filled musical pyrotechnics — is as impressive as ever. And she demonstrated it on Thursday night from the first energetic notes of her opening selection, “Lady Be Good.”

Other displays of her propulsive stride playing – backed by the empathic playing of guitarist Larry Koonse and tenor saxophonist Harry Allen – followed.

But Carmichael has evolved in recent years into a performer with more than a handful of keys to offer her listeners. Fully recovered from vocal cord surgery that had made singing impossible for years, she is now emerging as a convincing, warmly appealing vocalist, as well. Her renderings of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” and a saucy “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” suggested that she has the potential to be included in the upper echelon of female jazz singers.

Her set was enhanced by other musical shifts of gears: “The Lamp Is Low” delivered with subtle bossa nova rhythmic accents; a duet with Koonse on a hard driving blues in which his bop-driven lines danced merrily across Carmichael’s surging stride rhythms; a very different, voice and saxophone duet with Allen on a delicious romp through “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”; and yet another duet, this time featuring Koonse and Allen – with Carmichael listening approvingly – on “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Between songs, her buoyant personality and whimsical story-telling took over. Riffing off memories (some friends from high school were apparently in the crowd), spontaneously coming up with one-liners inspired by audience reactions, she was as improvisationally inventive with words as she was with her piano.

A helluva performance, on all counts. Instrumentally exciting, vocally engaging, musically compelling and marvelously — I’ll say it again — entertaining.

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