Judy Carmichael – Crazy Coqs

Musical Theatre Review
Wednesday, 11 May, 2016 in Onstage, Review
By Barrie Jerram

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Judy Carmichael is one of the world’s leading interpreters of stride piano. Her command of this technically and physically demanding jazz piano style was acknowledged by Count Basie who nicknamed her ‘Stride’.

Harlem Stride Piano, commonly abbreviated to stride, is a style that was developed in the large cities of the US East Coast, mainly New York,, during the 1920s and 1930s. It is a highly rhythmic style with left hand vamping that shows off the pianist’s impressive improvisational skills. James P. Johnson, known as the ‘Father of Stride,’ created this style of jazz piano along with fellow pianists Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Fats’ Waller.

Making a return visit to Crazy Coqs, Carmichael is in tremendous form and her playing deserves to be compared to these legendry giants of the past. Her storming opening number, ‘I’ve Found a New Baby’, is a masterclass of this genre which has her audience hooked right from the off.

Pulsating versions of ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ and ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ give way to the other side of Carmichael. ‘June Song’, a lilting love song for her hometown and for which she wrote the lyrics, shows that she can also put over a gentle ballad.

The set includes other numbers that she co-wrote with long-time friend Harry Allen and which can be found on her latest CD Can You Love Once More? Judy & Harry play Carmichael & Allen – a stylish album that shows her gentler side and contains more than a few gems. The backing combo includes Allen on tenor sax

The self-penned ‘My Manhattan’ was written after she left her native California for New York and extols her love for her new home. The first half closes with a rousing version of Benny Goodman’s ‘All the Cats Join In’.

In addition to her musical prowess, the effervescent Carmichael bonds well with her audience, relating anecdotes and joking with them – inevitably Donald Trump comes in for some witty jibes. Her sense of comedy is also shown in another self-penned set of lyrics – ‘Take Me Back to Machu Picchu’ – a cynical piece that reflects on a relationship that has lost its sparkle.

Perhaps at this point it would be right to praise the contribution made by Colin Oxley who provides wonderfully sensitive guitar accompaniment. Always gentle, even in his solo work, he is superb. There exists a magic that flows between the two artists who understand each other completely. It only takes one word from Carmichael for Oxley to understand the changes required. He is heard at his best in ‘Talk to Me’ where his playing is so simple yet full of eye-watering beauty that reflects Carmichael’s phrasing.

Paying homage to the great ‘Fats’ Waller, Carmichael chooses one of his lesser-known pieces, ‘Come and Get It’, before closing the evening with her take on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ – gentle, elegant improvisations eventually erupting into a gorgeous gallop.