Anyone who has ever seen Sag Harbor’s Judy Carmichael play piano in her trademark stride style—with its wild propulsive motion and syncopated excitement—knows that Carmichael has got a lot of energy. Smiling and laughing with her bandmates while she plays this muscular music, Carmichael’s the very image of joyful exuberance.
On Saturday, September 19, Carmichael will bring that exuberance back home to Sag Harbor, where she will be giving an electrifying performance at Bay Street Theater. She’ll be joined onstage by saxophonist Harry Allen, Chris Flory on guitar and Pat O’Leary on bass.
Some players may have a tendency to fall into a torpor when they are not onstage, but Carmichael’s intensity feeds into a tremendous work ethic when she’s not performing. She’s always working, whether she’s practicing, writing, or working on her radio show Jazz Inspired (which airs locally on WPPB, 88.3 FM, Tuesdays at 8 p.m.). Her activities have become increasingly diverse over the past couple of years. Now she’s writing original songs.
“I’ll be playing some originals at Bay Street,” says Carmichael. These songs, which feature lyrics by Carmichael and music by her saxophonist Harry Allen, are like 21st-century standards. “Writing lyrics is a lot of fun—it’s like a new occupation.” It has become something else to channel her boundless energy into, especially when she’s traveling and doesn’t have ready access to a piano at all times. She can write lyrics.
Never hugely motivated to write songs in the past, Carmichael began by updating the lyrics of older songs that she wanted to sing. Writing originals from scratch followed soon thereafter.
“It all stems from singing,” says Carmichael, who began incorporating singing into her act only a few years ago. There are obviously lots of songs already out there, but Carmichael feels that many of the great ones wouldn’t really suit her personality. “I wouldn’t preclude singing songs that are not specifically my life experience but some songs just don’t look right if you perform them.” Carmichael calls her own songs “empowered,” imbued with her own innate positivity.
“I don’t know that I want to sing a song about defeat—pain and sadness, yes—but not defeat.”
As Carmichael has increasingly moved toward singing, it has effected her piano playing. While she still plays stride, and always will, she doesn’t really sing in that style—and, in fact, one of the reasons she’s gravitated toward singing is to broaden her musical palette.
“A little stride goes a long way,” Carmichael says. To accompany her original songs, she’s moving more toward more modern styles of jazz comping—which is a brand-new world for her.
Shortly after her appearance at Bay Street, Carmichael will be off to merry old England—where she’s been spending a lot of time recently—for a series of dates at London’s Crazy Coqs Cabaret. On October 25, she’ll be back in Sag Harbor, performing at the American Hotel as a fundraiser for her educational foundation.
Carmichael is very excited to be back at Bay Street—she notes that she was the very first musician to perform at Bay Street back in the ’90s—and she is looking forward to being more involved with the theater’s off-season schedule.
“[Bay Street’s managing director] Gary Hygom and I really see eye to eye on the kind of creative programming we’d like to do,” Carmichael says. Coming to Bay Street in the spring: the first in a series of live interviews for Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio show.
With any luck, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Carmichael right here at home.
Judy Carmichael plays Bay Street Theater Saturday, September 19, at 8 p.m. 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Tickets $45–$75. 631-725-9500, baystreet.org