Sunday, February 24, 2008

An Interview with Carol Sloane

There’s a reason to write an introductory paragraph giving the highest praise to the artist one interviews. Here’s why. Carol Sloane is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. It’s a tall mountain to climb, jazz singing, and there is room for many at the top. Throughout Carol’s career those who have heard her knew within three notes that she belongs at this still exclusive pinnacle. Her voice is so fine and rare that there really isn’t anyone with whom to compare her. Just like Wes Montgomery and his miraculous thumb, Carol has a remarkable larynx. Most singers coordinate these muscles and fibrous tissue to generate one clear note. Not Carol. She has such control that she sings with chordal overtones. I’ll say it simply. She sings harmonies with herself. If you listen carefully, she is singing very subtle chords. Her concept of jazz singing, then, is the harmonic interplay between her and the piano or guitar, the small adjustments they make as the song moves on, one harmony for the A section, a variation on the second A, the bridge, and maybe a third way of doing the A section again. Who else can do this? Who else has that conception? On the mountaintop, the group shrinks considerably. But my experience with Carol’s voice is 99 percent listening to her sing Solitude or I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Her experience with her voice is 90 percent wondering out loud where she put the car keys, or, since she lives in New England, telling others how to drive. Not to mention forgiving Bill Buckner (don’t know if she’s gotten to that point yet, I know she’s striving for it if she hasn’t yet arrived) and blessing the Scion of Casablanca. So, for Carol, there is no mystique. For me, mystique is all there is. And that’s why one has to praise these great artists, because they are with themselves all of the time and are not in the least bit impressed, quietly confident is as good as it gets.

We did this interview using Google’s Instant Messaging, which transcribes as you talk, bless them. And so there are bits where we are both discovering how to do little Googly tricks, her succeeding, me flailing away. But we both had fun, and I believe she has offered some invaluable insights into jazz and jazz singing.

me: One thing I’ve noticed is that you tread where other musicians are afraid to go. The idea that you would not only try to sing the Frank Sinatra book, but ADD to it is pretty amazing. How did you muster the courage, or were you always on the courageous side?
Carol: lol ... I don't think that cd really succeeded although I had high hopes (a song I didn't include). And I did songs he had recorded.
me: It sounded pretty darn good to me. It didn't sound like Sinatra, but how could it? It added to the tunes. When I see a guitar album and the guitarist chose a Wes tune, I think, oh boy, how's this going to turn out. Usually not that good, we guitarists are all dwarfs compared to Wes. That wasn’t the case with your Frank stuff. You went at it eye to eye.
Carol: There was never any intention with it except to acknowledge that he'd sung those songs at one time, hence the title. I used the same for the Carmen album and the concept concluded with The Songs Ella and Louis Sang
me: Right, that's a bold musical move. Even Ella did songbooks about composers, not other singers.
Carol: The idea is pretty popular now, tributes to Ella for example, to Ray Charles. Oh just name them.
me: Yes, but...they, to me, make me want to hear the original singers. Your renditions stand by themselves.
Carol: Oh, that's nice of you to say. Thank you.
me: You're going to be modest, aren't you?
Carol: It's my middle name.
me: Okay. Then let's try it from another angle. A duet with a clarinet? That's not something people without confidence do. Have you always been so bold?
Carol: Well, if the musicians are as wonderful as (Ken) Peplowski or any of the true giants I've worked with, the concept isn't bold at all. It's more the essence of jazz singing (at least as I conceive it): no unnecessary embellishment, songs stand on their own and have more impact perhaps, at least that's what I strive for.
me: Okay, it’s not bold. (Yes it is). You have worked with the best of the best. No question here, I've just noticed it. Phil Woods, George Mraz…
Carol: Jimmy Rowles, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Richard Rodney Bennett, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, Kenny Burrell and lots more.
me: They feel honored to get the call?
Carol: Hope so. Mostly I'm just glad if they're available, and it's no lie to say they are all friends as well as colleagues. I've been around a long time. George Shearing told me long ago to always work with the best.
me: Let's talk about Kenny Burrell for a second. I noticed that you did some very intimate playing with Ken Bollenback. I don't know his style as I know Burrell's, but it seems as though Kenny usually sounds like Kenny, whereas Bollenback seemed to wrap his chords around your voice. Am I off on this perception?
Carol: Not at all. And I must confess Burrell and I only worked together on one track, on the Love You Madly cd. Bollenback is a member of my band WHEN I can get him. He's got such a terrific sense of the blues and is equally sensitive on ballads. Love the man.
me: That leads me to the next question. The later stuff is so perfectly done. I usually think, what would I play in this situation, and I was stumped. It seems as though your conception is so clear and beautiful that I would risk getting in the way. How well does your band know each other before the recording begins? Is there much rehearsal, how much is spontaneous?
Carol: Good question. I met PB at rehearsal for the "I Never Went Away" cd. Norman Simmons chose him and I couldn't have been more pleased. The band is now: Norman Simmons, Bollenback, Steve LaSpina on bass and Norman's lady-love on drums. She's just right for what I need, the band swings its a** off, and each time we do a tune, it's slightly different. Jazz is…jazz is exploration, and Norman or Paul play something new to my ears in every set ... great experience. And I wouldn't have it any other way, playing the same way each night isn't jazz. I'll be right back ... I'm going to get a glass of wine, want some?
me: Then I'll start tyopsdthol like this.
Carol: lol
me: There's another aspect to the small group, and that is that your voice implies chords. Even though only one note can come out, it sounds like there are harmonic overtones.
Carol: MY voice implies chords? I think it's the other way around. The musicians are so inventive—consistently they inspire me. The important fact is this: they treat me like a fellow musician, not the girl singer they are hired to play for.
me: They don't say this to you? That's one of the reasons I felt stumped, if you were thinking of a 7b9 and I end up playing a #9, it would feel as if I’d broken some crystal.
Carol: lol. That's very funny because I can't read a note of music. I'd only know the chord didn't sound right or might even be dead wrong. One has to KNOW the song before taking improvisatory leeway.
me: That's why they treat you like another musician. They have to listen and work like crazy, you can't just play anything behind you. It's possible to play the tune correctly and still sound like you missed something.
Carol: I suppose so ... another thing is I'm not working with kids fresh out of Berklee. I choose them because I know their own heads are filled with many of the same songs I know. That helps when we get a request or I just feel like singing something we hadn't rehearsed.
me: How is their feel? (Here’s where we were moving quickly, typing and reading, and I misunderstood what she just said. I thought I read that presently she IS working with kids fresh out of Berklee)
Carol: The best. And it's led by Norman (Simmons). His skill as an accompanist is legendary. He didn't play for Carmen, Anita, Sarah and Joe Williams and not learn a great deal about when to play and more importantly when NOT to play.
me: Ah, so it's not just a group of Berklee kids. There is a leader.
Carol: Well, I'm the leader in one sense. But I trust Norman to choose the right tempos. I choose the tunes, we all contribute.
me: Actually, and correct me if I'm wrong about this, but Berklee has musical coldness associated with it, at least it did.
Carol: Well, the kids graduating have little or no real exerience working with veteran players. Talent is one thing, the actual gig is another matter.
me: You said that you can't read a note, that only leaves singing from the heart. Could you comment on that.
Carol: I learned early on that I have a very good ear. I am not easily thrown and I worked when I was young with musicians who deliberately tested me on that. When I sing it's always as honest as I can make it, a reflection of who I am. And the music inspires my heart.
me: How did they test you?
Carol: Deliberately played the wrong chords, and then would laugh when I turned around with raised eyebrows. They knew I couldn't read music but they also quickly learned they couldn't keep me from singing the correct melody. I was able to concentrate and focus all the time.
me: You took charge of the band then?
Carol: Those particular musicians were not very professional in any sense of the word. It was a long time ago.
me: If you give them a look, it has some clout.
Carol: Like Benny's famous ray?
me: I wouldn't know your look. But Benny had business to do. I think his music allowed the guys to march across Europe, had his tunes going through their heads.
Carol: Benny was a character ... I worked with him too ... never got the ray though!
me: No, I've heard you. You wouldn't. I would.
Carol: Well, maybe not ...practice more.
me: I practice to keep up with my daughter. Do you do any workshops, work with young singers?
Carol: I haven't conducted classes in some time. I enjoyed it when I did. I subbed for an instructor some years ago at the NE Conservatory and half my students were quite dreadful, made for some tedious times. But my private group classes were a different matter, no one got in until they passed an audition.
me: I assume that several had classical training. Did that get in the way?
Carol: I never asked about it. It was clear from the start that some had, so trying to get them into a feeling of improvising wasn't easy, but I didn't allow anyone to scat. That's not jazz singing anyway.
me: Go ahead with that thought. That will turn a few heads.
Carol: As far as I'm concerned, scat singing's masters are very skilled and I appreciate their inventiveness. Scat can be very tedious and excruciating when singers use the technique just to proclaim how hip they are. Few are experienced as (Mark) Murphy, (Kurt) Elling, and (Tierney) Sutton.
me: Keep going.
Carol: That's about it really. I don't think scat singing can persuade me that the person doing it is therefore a jazz singer, some think it's proof positive. I disagree. Carmen could but didn't do much, Sarah couldn't help herself, Shirley Horn never did, I don't believe ... and I don't think Billie Holiday ever did. And they most assuredly were the voices of jazz.
me: Why do you think you and Billie had such different opinions about Oscar Peterson?
Carol: I'm not aware of what her opinion was, did she dislike him? And did she say why?
me: Said he played too much.
Carol: Well, she was dead right. He was not a great vocal accompanist, listen to his recording with Bill Henderson, it's impossible for him to play the subtle role of side-man. He's even a bit over the top when working with Fred Astaire. No: I take it back—he is over the top. I sat in with him on more than one occasion; he distracted the hell out of me, but then: my God, I was standing beside OP! THE OP!
He didn't throw me off my stride though :-)
me: This would be a smiley--oh you can do smileys? Let me try. Didn't work.
Carol: I clicked the smiley and then typed :-) ... it translated itself
me: like this? Nope. Didn’t work.
Carol: :-)
me: Show off.
Carol: Oh yeah! If you type a colon, a dash and a close paran .. it will convert itself.
me: Do you still practice, and what was your routine like when you were practicing the most? I'll try (the animated smiley) again when you answer this one.
Carol: I don't practice and I used to agonize about it, but I'm too lazy. Now I take medication to help with performance anxiety and nothing much bothers me anymore. I used to be sick before every performance. I nearly hyperventilated on stage at Carnegie Hall once.
me: Nope (no smiley). So if there ever was a natural, you're it.
Carol: Well, I know I need to warm a little before I perform but I haven't been put to the test for a long time, last time in NY I was only asked to sing once song, hardly seemed worth the train trip down and back. One song.
me: So, to summarize the last few points, your idea of jazz is more of a group interplay, the spontaneity of the musicians, not the vocal improvisation?
Carol: The musicians are playing for me and enhance my singing by choosing inventive chords, knowing the right moments to slip in an extra chord or lick. And so it's a two-way street; they play for me but we all work together. It blends into one element at times and then it's all me. If they do their job right, the audience focuses on me and my singing, not in some cases, realizing that I sound that good because I am surrounded with the most beautiful frame.
me: Does your band rehearse a lot?
Carol: We're lucky if we can at least get a sound check on the afternoon of the night we open.
me: But by now you know each other very well. Did it take long to get that level of familiarity?
Carol: Not really, but we grow more mellow and comfortable with each engagement we play, just not often enough. But then, I'm withdrawing from it all a bit. I hate to fly, there aren’t many clubs or really nice rooms outside of Boston and New York, one or two in LA but they don't pay enough to make the trip worthwhile. It's difficult for many.
me: Have you seen your discography on either Amazon or CD Universe?
Carol: I see it at my web site ... why do you ask?
me: To see if there's anything that we all need to hear but they may not have.
Carol: Who they? And how will they hear if with jazz radio in this country in such a mess, being replaced by ‘talk’ or ‘light rock’ formats. Which reminds me: I was listening to KCMS today. Did you ever investigate those urls I gave you? KCSM I mean, WICN, WGBO?
me: Didn't get to them. I think I'm holding out hope that WSIE will stream. The ‘they’ is Amazon and CD Universe. And if they don't have some, we go to the expert shops, like Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis. They seem to have the ability to find anything.
Carol: But a lot of my stuff is OOP or very expensive in Japan or occasionally at auction at ebay, AND a lot is still circulating of course.
me: What are your favorites?
Carol: Of mine?
me: Is there someone else typing here?
Carol: lol ... Dearest Duke and Love You Madly…
me: Okay, I think I'm running out of questions--actually we're getting so silly that I might end on this--did Grady Tate sing for you? I saw he played on one of your albums.
Carol: He sang with me on a cd called The Real Thing, and we have sung together live in performance. Before we finish here: any idea what happens if I click Options and/or Pop-Out ... not as in wardrobe malfunction but I'm curious.
me: Well, on pop-out, nothing happens other that I wait. Options, I've never done. But I'm hoping that when we finish this whole thing is transcribed in my in box.
Carol: I'll get this ... how hard can it be for a woman who has been known to sing Lush Life a capella? Thanks for the chat
me: Okay. Thank you. I'll sign off and hope to hell this transcribes. Talk to you soon.
Carol: Fine ... happy to answer more if you wish ... Ciao
me: Roger and out.

1 comment:

Thomas C. Kern, Jr. said...
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