Judy Carmichael: Can You Love Once More?

Dan's Papers
September 9, 2016
By Daniel Koontz

If you haven’t been keeping tabs on Sag Harbor’s Judy Carmichael for the last few years, you might be in for a big surprise when you listen to her new CD. Called Can You Love Once More?, this recording is in some ways a wild departure for the veteran stride pianist. First of all, there’s no stride on this disc. In fact, we don’t hear Carmichael touch the piano anywhere on here. But don’t despair. Because instead of Carmichael’s jaunty playing, we hear 12 new songs, each exploring a different classic jazz genre, with lyrics by Carmichael herself and music by her longtime saxophonist Harry Allen. Carmichael sings—she’s been showcasing her vocal chops for a while now, so that’s nothing too new—while surrendering the piano bench to Mike Renzi, who’s on loan from Tony Bennett’s band. The result doesn’t sound like a wild departure; the timeless-sounding songs and the agile band make it seem like Carmichael’s been doing this all along.

As a lyricist, Carmichael alternates between sweet sincerity—with heartfelt songs about young love or the joys of spring—and witty humor—with David Frishberg-like songs about romantic mishaps or cooling ardor. Coupled with Allen’s stylistic eclecticism, the result is a pleasing variety of thoughts and moods. What unites it all is Carmichael’s warm singing, plus a decidedly old fashioned sense of craft and an obvious reverence for the Great American Songbook. In fact, these songs could well be mistaken for standards were it not for some of the more modern sentiments expressed in their lyrics; more than a couple of them even open with a classic-style “verse,” a charming, antique touch.

The set begins on a humorous note with “Make Me an Offer I Can’t Refuse,” a straightforward swing tune that reveals Carmichael’s preference for Daniel Craig over Mr. Bean. Here the excellent work of Mike Karn on bass is featured in duet with Carmichael’s voice. Next up is the jazz waltz “June Song,” a buoyant paean to spring that evokes Carmichael’s favorite season on the East End.

“There Was Once a Time” sounds the first sorrowful note in the collection. This is a melancholy ballad about lost love, and, in an interesting bit of text painting, Carmichael’s singing here gets softer and softer over the course of the lyric—illustrating the fading of feeling while expressing the pain that fading has caused.

From a slow verse moving into a fast bop, “This Is My Lucky Day” banishes the clouds that might have built up. “Take Me Back to Machu Picchu” follows with a witty, Latin-tinged take on a hot romance gone cold. Next, “The One For You” dishes out some jazz soul, complete with an extended, raunchy sax solo and a cool, melodic drum solo by the great Alvin Atkinson.

We’re in bossa nova territory on “An Almost Perfect Man,” another joke song where you have to wait for the punch line to find out what’s not perfect about the man in question—at least as far as Carmichael is concerned. “Pluto You’re For Me” manages to combine Carmichael’s love of astrophysics with her deep Disney experience. (A California native, Carmichael got her start playing piano at Disneyland.) The fast-paced “Meant To Be” is another positive tune about true love.

On “A Lonely Breeze,” the CD reaches its most mournful in what has to be considered the piece de résistance of the whole collection. Allen’s breathy saxophone channels the titular breeze in his sensitive playing.

“If Only There Were Time” clears the air with a return to a gentle swing, and the closing, title track “Can You Love Once More?” is another bossa with a bit more of an updated feel.

The talented, multitasking Carmichael is always up to new tricks, but she’s no dabbler. Can You Love Once More? is the work of a serious songwriter who’s as adept with a lyric as she is with her vaunted stride playing. Don’t miss it!