Keely Smith is back in town, at Feinstein’s at the Regency, celebrating the release of a new Basie CD. The singer, who admits to being 75 and “happier than I have been in my life,” is singing with a knockout vocal thrust that remains strong and pure. Her demeanor is cool, confident and relaxed.
This is a class act with a minimum of incidental patter. Smith gets down to the business of singing, and she socks out the standards with a knowing awareness of melody and lyric. Only once did she miss the note she was shooting for. “That’s simply not good enough,” Smith quipped, and went back to hit the note on the head.
From Rodgers and Hart to Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, Smith touches all bases. Opening night marked the 104th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s birth. The thrush marked the occasion with a sultry “Mood Indigo” and a slow take on “Take the ‘A’ Train” that chugged and churned into a rompin’ second chorus.
The Count Basie connection prompts a hardy punch on “April in Paris,” and another French connection is Michel Legrand’s “One at a Time,” so infectiously warming that Smith prefaced the second chorus with, “This is music to make love by!”
There is the expected nod to the memorable lounge act she shared with former husband and partner Louis Prima with “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “That Old Black Magic.” Smith’s ’50s chart hit, “I Wish You Love,” still warms the heart. Part Cherokee, Smith sings Ray Noble’s homage to a “sweet Indian maiden,” “Cherokee” (the old Charlie Barnet signature tune) as another punchy nod to the big band era.
For her recording session Smith was backed by 40 musicians, including a soaring string section. There are only 10 guys at the Regency these evenings, but they romp and wail with such force, one has to keep counting heads to see if there aren’t more on the stand. Joe Cocuzzo, the vet Woody Herman drummer who kept time for Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, is the unit’s driving force. He knows both subtlety and sock and he fuels the band with fire and energy.