When it comes to playing live, Judy Carmichael really knows her audience.The internationally acclaimed and Grammy-nominated stride-style pianist should; she travels all over the world playing for her legions of fans. The entertainer’s keyboard virtuosity and witty repartee certainly draw the crowds, but it’s the musician’s ability to listen—a rarity for performers—that holds them in thrall when she’s on the stage.
“I’m completely engaged with the moment. It’s really a moment shared with the audience,” she said during a recent interview over lunch at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. “It’s completely how they react. I feel their energy … Never lose track of your audience.”
She cited “old-school performers, like vaudevillians,” as the masters at reading their fans.
“Their timing was perfect, they knew exactly how long to make every story,” she said.
Recently landing back home in Noyac from playing concerts in such far-flung locales as Europe, Antarctica, Japan and the Aleutian Islands, Ms. Carmichael is ready to once again entertain here on the East End with an “I Love Being Here With You! An Evening of Swinging Music, Sultry Vocals and Sassy Humor!” concert at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on August 2. But there’s a twist—instead of sitting behind her piano, as she usually does, Ms. Carmichael will instead be standing at the microphone, singing.
It’s a departure for the versatile performer but one that she is excited and passionate about. The concert will include songs from her new CD, “I Love Being Here With You,” which is currently available on her website and is slated for wide release in the fall, and a number of ballads and love songs by musical greats such as Peggy Lee, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and others.
“I have this identity as a rockin’ piano player, a funny girl, and now I’m standing up and singing these romantic songs. It’s a huge leap for me,” she said, adding that singing sultry ballads instead of energetically playing stride piano is an entirely new experience for her when she’s on the stage. “Couples lean into one another or hold hands. This beautiful thing happens that I’ve never gotten to see.”
Playing the Suffolk Theater is also something she’s looking forward to, especially because it gives her a chance to sing in a new venue—one that doesn’t come with a hefty price tag for her local fans.
“Out here I’m always doing all these fundraisers; I seldom do anything where the ticket price is less than $100. I want to be able to play a concert or two a year someplace where it’s affordable,” she said.
The musician credited Executive Director Bob Spiotto, as well as owners Dianne and Bob Castaldi, for breathing new life into the former movie palace.
“This is really smart, he’s doing some creative stuff there. Everybody’s been telling me this,” she reported. “I’m thrilled with the whole resurgence.”
Performing as a songstress has been a long time coming for Ms. Carmichael. She’s struggled with vocal cord injuries her whole life.
“I was having vocal cord hemorrhages before Adele,” she laughed in her throaty and rich alto. “I had a really low voice, even as a little kid, so I was always straining it. The teachers were always trying to get me to sing higher.”
After developing nodules, Ms. Carmichael “didn’t even sing in the shower,” she said.
It was only after extensive vocal therapy and starting her National Public Radio series, “Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired,” that she was able to mend and get her voice healthy enough to sing. And then there was a gig with a legendary cabaret entertainer that really put her on the path to vocalizing during a performance.
“I did a show with Steve Ross and that was the joke of the show. I pretended I was going to sing. He kept saying, ‘It’s time for your tune.’ And I’d go,” she filled her diaphragm with a big gulp of air as if getting ready to belt out a song. “He’d say, ‘Vegas throat, I’ve seen this before. We’ll wait a couple of tunes.’”
“And I never sang,” she paused, “maybe just a measure. But by making this joke, I could actually sing that measure,” she said. “I didn’t tell anybody but bit by bit I started singing on my own.”
Recording her latest CD was a wonderful experience, Ms. Carmichael reported. On it, she sings songs such as Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” Cole Porter’s “Why Can’t You Behave,” George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me” and the sultry “The Lamp is Low” by Peter DeRose and Bert Shefter.
“This was my opportunity to not think about piano, not to think stylistically what I do pianistically,” she said, adding that working with pianist Mike Renzi, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen and bassist Jay Leonhart on the album was a dream. And since she’s been the one playing piano during her lengthy career, playing with the multi-award-winning Mr. Renzi was a real treat, she said.
“I’ve lost count how many Grammys and Emmys he’s won. He was the music director for ‘Sesame Street’ for a long time, music director for Mel Tormé, Lena Horne, Jack Jones,” she said. “I like to say that he’s gone from Miss Piggy to Miss Judy,” she laughed.
Judy Carmichael will perform with Pat O’Leary and Chris Flory for an “I Love Being Here With You! An Evening of Swinging Music, Sultry Vocals and Sassy Humor!” concert at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Friday, August 2, at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $30. Call the box office at 727-4343 for reservations or visit suffolktheater.com, or judycarmichael.com for additional information. Ms. Carmichael will also play a concert at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor on October 20.