This is my 35-piece orchestra,” quipped singer Keely Smith as she introduced the nine musicians who are backing her for her first extended Manhattan engagement in several years. Indeed, the band at Feinstein’s at the Regency produced a big, fat sound that braced the singer with churning tempos.
Recovering from a cold, Smith apologized for a mild croak in her throat. “I sound like B.S. Pulley,” the singer confessed, though few patrons seemed to remember the gravel-voiced comic who played Big Julie on stage and screen in “Guys and Dolls.” Despite a slight rasp and an occasional detoured flight to a top note, Smith’s bold, dark voice took firm hold on a handful of great standard tunes, and she swung hard.
Smith’s program was an homage to Ol’ Blue Eyes, celebrating the release of her new Concord CD. Using arrangements modeled after the classic Nelson Riddle-Billy May charts, Smith saluted her mentor and good pal with familiar Sinatra classics. From the torchy grandeur of “Angel Eyes” and “I’ll Never Smile Again” to the lush romanticism of “All the Way” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” Keely Smith, at age 69, proved she can still summon a sultry, sensuous reading of a lyric. A cello quartet behind her was a lush plus.
“This next one’s a mouthful,” noted Smith, as she dug into the unofficial Manhattan anthem “New York, New York,” and no one seemed to mind that the lady — of Irish-American Indian descent — substituted “moccasins” for “vagabond shoes.” Her trademark deadpan humor from the old Vegas lounge-act days still sneaks into the act.
Smith took “It Was a Very Good Year” at an unlikely racing tempo heightened by a gritty tenor sax solo from Jerry Vevino, unaware that composer Ervin Drake was sitting directly in front of her. He rose to his feet applauding the swinging new arrangement.
Windup brought out a nod to the singer’s late husband and partner, Louis Prima, with “Just a Gigolo” and “That Old Black Magic,” prompting the aud to sing along. Reprising her classic rendition of “I Wish You Love,” Smith noted the song had been very good to her. She has been very good to the song.
Smith will follow her turn at Feinstein’s with summer dates in Hollywood and Chicago.