Some things never change. Keely Smith is back in town, singin’ and swingin’ big time. The lady is 74 years old and proud of it. Her voice has lost none of its honeyed warmth and creamy luster. Whether she was cradling the listener with a fireside or cocktail ballad, or jumpin’ and jammin’ with a swing classic, Smith forged a firm bond with her aud.
Taking a cue from her new Concord CD, “Swing, Swing, Swing!,” the singer paid homage to her late husband and partner, Louis Prima, and the lounge acts of the ’50s that rocked Vegas and Tahoe. To those of a certain age, it was like being in a time capsule, and it’s a real comfort zone.
Keely punched out Prima standards “Just a Gigolo,” “Jump, Jive and Wail,” “Robin Hood” and “Oh, Marie.” When Capitol Records offered Prima a recording contract, he insisted that Keely must have her own agreement for solo albums. The result was Smith’s classic collaborations with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle. From those albums, Smith has revived a trio of romantic milestones: “I Wish You Love,” “Mr. Wonderful” and “It’s Magic.” She burnishes a love song with lush tones and a knowing sense of phrasing.
While some acts struggle for snappy patter or a connecting narrative, Smith created an uncommonly warm and friendly rapport with her audience. She strolled among the tables, chatted with the guests and even invited her listeners to take some daring solo turns singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The physical force of the nine-piece band framed Smith in a swinging setting that fit her like a glove. There was a bracing recall of Sam Butera and the Witnesses, the original Prima-Smith backup group. Biggest bite came from Jerry Vivino, whose honkin’, rompin’ tenor sax solos pushed the singer to an exuberant plateau.
Singer wrapped it all up with the classic Sinatra hymn of racial and religious tolerance, “The House I Live In,” followed by the national anthem. Inviting the audience to join a “Star-Spangled Banner” sing-along may appear mawkish to some, but Smith made it a stirring and warming experience.