By Harvey Siders, 11/29/09
Just who is the real Judy Carmichael? The host of Public Radio's "Jazz Inspired" for the past 15 years? The first jazz musician sent by our government to tour China? Grammy nominee? Author of two books on stride piano? The one Count Basie nicknamed "Stride?" Or is it the Judy Carmichael who finally, after seven instrumental CDs, makes her debut as a singer? Obviously all of the above, but let's concentrate on her voice - a very pleasant surprise she has withheld from us for too many years.
She unveils it tentatively, singing on half of the dozen tracks, but enough to reveal a warm, intimate quality, particularly on ballads. Perhaps her most tentative effort, considering her desire to "channel my inner Peggy Lee:" the opener, "All The Cats," an early Lee success. If the intent was to come on seductively, Judy only succeeded in sounding polite. The very next tune, "Love Is Just Around The Corner," never knows when to turn that corner: over eight minutes of bland two-beat. It isn't until the fourth track that Ms Carmichael finally reveals the true balladic beauty of her voice: "Gee, Baby," accompanied by pianist Tony Monte. The only reason for mentioning the delay is that Judy was producer and executive producer; the decision was hers. Elsewhere, her decisions are as resolute as her amazing left hand. Her introspective, rubato solo on "Memories of You" is remarkable. There's a bit of Dave Blenkhorn's guitar towards the end, but his part could have been phoned in. Arranger Mike Hashim does a great job recreating the sound and feel of of the Fats Waller combo, ca. mid-30s, with Judy capturing her major icon in her stride solo. She also contributes her own chart on another Waller classic, the title song. The writing highlight of the album is another Hashim re-creation, the Ellington chestnut, "Wanderlust," preceded by a Monk-ish intro.
Vocal highlight: Carmichael's plaintive reading of "You're Driving Me Crazy," accompanied effectively by guitarist Blenkhorn. Trombonist Dan Barnett takes a great "talking"/growling plunger solo, and Judy reveals a most pleasant vibrato when she sustains tones. If she was somewhat inhibited in her vocal debut, I believe there's a true jazz singer waiting to emerge. So I'm looking forward to her ninth release.