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I spent this past New Year’s Eve at Spazio seeing a very entertaining all-star band, Judy Chamberlain’s Society Swing Orchestra. The lineup of musicians was impressive: Bandleader Chamberlain on vocals — including an early dinner duo set with pianist Frank Collett — joined by the great Al Viola on guitar, Ben May on bass, Steve Wilkerson on tenor, clarinet and flute, trumpeter Kye Palmer, pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer James Gadson, who also did some vocals. Like Duke Ellington, Judy Chamberlain is a master at gathering together unique soloists and blending them into a superb ensemble.
The music started at 6 p.m. and was still going strong until 2 a.m. Without using any written music, or audible cues like calling out song titles or keys or visually seeming to count off a tempo, Judy Chamberlain goes spontaneously and smoothly from one song to another. She’s skilled at creating head arrangements, often taking the pickup with her voice. After a few notes bassist May is swinging right behind her as the rest of the band quickly joins in. This happened a few dozen times during the night, and seemed so natural that it was easy to forget how impossible it is to pull off. The packed house enjoyed the festivities and during the last hour of 2003 the dance floor was overflowing.
Highlights of the evening, which had plenty of variety, included “Birth Of The Blues,” “When The Saints Go Marching In,” a vocal piano duet on “Why Did I Choose You” with Cunliffe, “Pennies From Heaven” (which found Wilkerson’s tenor sounding a lot like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis), a wacky klezmer version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Caravan” — during which Wilkerson nearly blew the roof off the place — “Mona Lisa,” “What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Jump Jive & Wail,” “Brazil,” a few Motown numbers from Gadson, Chamberlain’s jazzy romps on tunes like “Mustang Sally” and “I Will Survive” and the romantic “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” with Wilkerson imitating the entire Guy Lombardo sax section. A ten-minute version of “As Time Goes By” took place right after midnight, followed by lovely renditions of “Twilight Time,” “Stardust,” “Two For The Road” and a show-stopping duet with Al Viola on “And I Love You So.”
Judy Chamberlain’s warm and flexible voice was strong all evening long, concluding with her closing theme “I’ll Close My Eyes.” It was quite a show, one that few other musicians could have accomplished.
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