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Carol Sloane on Singers and Songs: A Blindfold Test


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Tell Carol Sloane you like one of her records and you will probably get the same reaction every time. She will smile graciously, thank you sincerely and then proceed politely to explain how she could have done the song better. Given her own exacting standards, not to mention her experience as a disc jockey and as a reviewer for Downbeat, it seemed natural to put Carol in the hot seat for a blindfold test.

I Could Have Told You So

(Van Heusen & Sigman)
As Time Goes By (1973)
Carmen McRae: vocals & piano

[Piano intro] It sounds like the person playing is going to sing. [Vocal] (Laughs) There she is. I love her version of this tune. She never really played really interesting chords. She was just getting herself through it really, but there was just something about getting down to the bare bones.

I once asked her if she knew what she was going to do way ahead of time, and she said she made the decision on the way over to the piano or when sitting down. That's why she'd play an introduction and something would pop into her head. Sometimes she knew what she wanted to do, but isn't it interesting that she would just go over to the piano and start? I loved it when she did that, but some nights she didn't play. I remember sitting in the room watching her.

I miss her so much that it's hard for me to listen to her. I sometimes think she's still alive and wonder if I should call her up, or the thought pops into my head that I haven't heard from her in a long time -she used to call me a lot -then I think, "no she's not going to do that anymore."


(Carmichael & Parish)
T'Aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do (1959)
Helen Humes: vocals; Benny Carter: trumpet; Frank Rosolino: trombone; Teddy Edwards: tenor saxophone; Andre Previn: piano; Leory Vinnegar: bass; Shelly Manne: drums

Before: What a voice. I don't know who that trumpet player was though. Isn't she wonderful? She had this little tiny voice. She'd come in, (imitating Humes) "Jimmy, I want to sing." Jimmy [Rowles] would say, "Helen, you can sing anything you want, baby. What do you want to sing?" (Imitating Humes) "I don't know. I just want to sing." She's just so wonderful. I don't know who that trumpet player was. I didn't like his sound much, isn't that odd? (Starts humming along to find the key). That was her upper register. She didn't have a lot of bottom. Just a little, light voice. [trombone solo] West Coast guys? They sound like West Coast guys. I don't know who those musicians are, but I certainly recognize that lady.

After: [trumpet -Benny Carter] Oh, well there you are. He didn't do it very often. [trombone -Frank Rosolino] That was the next thing I was going to say, honest to God, I was thinking, "West Coast & Rosolino." [tenor sax -Teddy Edwards] I didn't hear enough of him just gently in the background. [Previn, Vinnegar, Manne] It's the West Coast guys. I told you. I knew it was West Coast. That much I knew. That's interesting because you don't hear Benny playing trumpet very much. It's an interesting recording. Very nice. She's one of my favorite singers. I just love that lady. I love this song.

Heart & Soul

(Carmichael & Loesser)
The Heart and Soul of George Shearing and Joe Williams (1971)
Joe Williams: vocals; George Shearing: piano; Andy Simpkins: bass; Stix Hooper: drums

Before: Is that Norman [Simmons] playing for him? Now that's diction. When Sinatra died, Joe was in Boston, and we were interviewed on television to talk about Sinatra. After we got through, I thought, I'm going on about Sinatra, but Joe could sing a ballad just as well and just as beautifully as Frank, and he could sing the blues, which Frank couldn't do. And he could swing, of course. When he would come on stage, it was like sunshine in the club. [piano] He sings, that pianist. Monty Alexander likes to sing. He's singing behind Joe. Listen to that! Ramsey [Lewis] likes to sing too, but I don't think Ramsey made any records with Joe Williams. He's playing way the hell too much behind Joe. George Shearing?

After: I like Joe at any stage of his career singing anything at all. I don't care what it is, I'll take it. Joe Williams -the best. I'm glad I got George. I recognized that style, but then he started singing and not giving poor old Joe much room. You'd think he'd know better. He loves to sing and when he sings, he plays very quietly for himself. I love to listen to George sing.

Don't Fence Me In

(C. Porter)
outtake from NPR series "Piano Jazz" (1991)
Rosemary Clooney: vocals; Marian McPartland: piano

Before: That is a lousy song. It doesn't swing. It doesn't do anything. Is that John Oddo, the guy who plays for her? What's the point of doing this song? Rosemary Clooney on a horse? Yeah right. I wonder if she picked this song. [piano] I have no idea in the world who this is. Hear that? This person plays that when this person plays. That's not Marian McPartland is it?

After: I was waiting for something wonderfully inventive to happen there and it didn't happen. I never thought Marian was as inventive as Mary Lou [Williams]. I mean she is perfectly wonderful, and she's had a good bit of success with ["Piano Jazz"], and she's a very nice lady, but that is not a very interesting piano solo. And it's a lousy song. I don't think Rosemary Clooney is a jazz singer. Not at all. She's not improvisational in the way she sings. She's got good time, but it isn't what I would call jazz singing. That's a terrible piece of material that's beneath both of them really.

King on the Road

(R. Miller)
King on the Road (1999)
Nancy King: vocals; Glen Moore: bass; Ron Scheps: saxophone

Before: Wasn't this song called "King of the Road?" It's not [Lea] Delaria is it? I like this singer. I think if I heard this woman sing a ballad, I'd know who she was. This is another case of the material being beneath the singer. This singer can swing. She's got a good voice. She reads a lyric nicely. Why choose that awful piece of nonsense? That's a good singer.

After: I don't know Nancy King's work. As I said, that is a wonderful singer, but she could have gone without that song. Whoever persuaded her to do that needs to get some demerits. I would love to hear her sing some other material more suited to her enormous skills. She's got a lot of skill. A wonderful singer.

Rockin Chair

(H. Carmichael)
from a V-Disc session (1943)
Mildred Bailey: vocals; Teddy Wilson: piano

[Piano intro] I have a feeling we are going to hear Ella & Ellis Larkins. [vocal] I don't know who is playing for Mildred, but it's that style of Teddy Wilson. Is it Teddy? Listen to that voice. I'll bet she talked just like that too. (hums along to find key). Up there. Wow. See she's holding those notes just as pretty and her placement is so lovely. Now this song, I think, is inappropriate for her. "I'm sitting here grabbing at flies around my Rockin Chair." That's not an image I want of Mildred or any woman -sitting around a porch swatting at flies. I can hear Louis Armstrong singing it or some male singer perhaps. The melody is so pretty, but that is the one line I've always objected to. (hums along again). Oh, it's way up there. That's wonderful.

I'll tell you a story about Mildred Bailey. I was dating Bob Brookmeyer and that was when he was playing in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. Bob had run into a real block for writing and Thad was begging for new material. Bob was unable to move out of the chair. He was that bad. I got out this Mildred Bailey record of her singing "Willow Tree" and I played it for him. He said, "play that again." So I played it again, and he said, "hmmm, play it again." He got up out of the chair and he wrote. That arrangement was in the book, and the band played it a lot. Every time I've ever heard it, I've always felt real proud because it wouldn't have been in the book if I hadn't said something. But Mildred, it was her recording of "Willow Tree" that got him to get up and write it, and it's a beautiful arrangement. Mildred was the inspiration for Brookmeyer, and I'm really proud of that one.

I loved Mildred's singing. It sounded so simple, but people don't understand that this was an artistry that may never be duplicated. I worked with Teddy a few times and I loved him. Who didn't? A wonderful player for singers. He knew exactly where to put the embellishment and where not to put it. He put this lovely gentle little carpet down, and he loved playing for singers.

Baby, Don't You Quit Now

(Rowles & Mercer)
A Timeless Place (1995)
Jeri Brown: vocals; Jimmy Rowles: piano & vocal, Erik Von Essen: bass

Before: [piano intro] That sounds like Jimmy Rowles to me. That's him. [vocal by Brown] I hate the sound of this. I hate that much reverb on a voice. [bass solo] Is that [George] Mraz? Is it the young bassist who died? Erik Von Essen? I know Jimmy loved this kid, and I certainly understand why. He's wonderful. [vocal by Rowles] (laughs) He taught me this song singing exactly like that (imitates Rowles raspy voice and laughs). Oh, he was really at the end of his voice here. He had such a pretty vibrato too when he would sing. [vocal by Brown] This woman doesn't sing a lot. I don't think she's out making a lot of records or making a lot of appearances.

After: I've got this record. This sounded like she was having some trouble. Maybe Jimmy said this is the way to sing the song and she was trying to please him. He did that conversational thing always in his singing. I'm so distracted by the reverb. You hit the "t" and the "t" is lasting for three seconds after you've sung it. Too bad. That song is so gentle and very sexy. I'd like one day to do an album of Jimmy's tunes. I really would. He wrote some wonderful songs.

The Heather on the Hill

(Lerner & Loewe)
Manhattan in the Rain (1997)
Norma Winstone: vocals; Steve Gray: piano; Chris Laurence: bass; Tony Coe: clarinet

Before: [clarinet] Ah, Paul Winters out in the canyon somewhere? Is this that type of thing? Out in the desert or in caves with stalactites hanging around? [vocal] I know who this is, but I don't know who it is. Wait. The intonation is gone to pieces already. I hate this breathy thing. Hold the note, honey. You don't hold notes with no use of vibrato unless you're dead on it, and she's missed it twice now. The guy in the back needs to shut up. When it's your turn, you'll get your turn. (sings along) Come on. Missed again. I'm not at all certain who this is, but she sounds like she's young. She needs to work on her placement because her breath control is a little wobbly. It needs more work.

After: No, you're kidding! This is a very good song that puts her straight the hell out there. It's a little bit more than she can manage, and I hate the guy behind her who won't shut up. That's a lovely song. Maybe she should have tried it half a step down or a whole step down in the key. It would be beautiful with just a guitar and not even doing it in tempo because then it's very slow, very dirgy. I just didn't like all that stuff going on in the background, and it seemed almost more than her voice could handle. It's a little bit too wispy for me. I like a little more strength in the voice. She did the lyric to "Peacocks," which I'm sure pleased Jimmy [Rowles] because it's a very good lyric.

Take the "A" Train

(B. Strayhorn)
Ella in Hollywood (1961)
Ella Fitzgerald: vocals; Lou Levy: piano; Jim Hall: guitar; Wilfred Middlebrooks: bass; Gus Johnson: drums

How can you listen to this and not be smiling the whole time? That's just about her lowest note. She almost didn't make it. It doesn't sound like Tommy [Flanagan]. Paul Smith? It's not Lou is it? There's a lot of block stuff going on behind her. She didn't need all of that.

[Ella begins to scat] How many choruses does she do? Forty? She found out very early on she could scat. It was so unique. No one else was doing it. When she really hit her stride and was in every major festival all over the world, people expected her to do this and they expected her to do forty choruses. She did sing a lot of cliches. She sang a lot of things that had been done before, but it was the way she incorporated them. The songs she would sing were not difficult to improvise on. "A-Train" is a pretty easy tune. So is "Mack the Knife." She didn't improvise on any Thelonious Monk tunes. She sang some straight, wonderful Ellington stuff, which was pretty easy to do. The thing about her was that she would keep on going and keep cranking it. She'd slap her hip and start digging in. It was too wonderful, and it was joyous for her. She loved doing this stuff.

After two choruses, I'm about to outwear my welcome if I ever even do it that much. This was pure joy for her. She was the only one doing it at the time so of course we loved her for it. We were in awe. Not many of us even tried, because she was doing it so well. It was foolish if you tried to do it, because you couldn't do it that well. This, by the way, really ought to have modulated and Levy is still playing those chunky chords back there.


(Ellington, Latouche & Strayhorn)
Daydream (1997)
Karrin Allyson: vocals; Gary Burton: vibes; Paul Smith: piano; Bob Bowman: bass;

Before: I know that. Is this Karrin? I hear that country thing in there, which makes sense since she's from Kansas City. There's too much going on behind her. Too much happening. She's got the pianist from Kansas City who plays for her and then the vibes in the back. I hate it that this is being taken at this tempo. This is such a beautiful song. It's a very unfortunate decision to treat it this way. An arrangement problem.

After: I think she's growing a lot. She's had enormous success with the Coltrane album. Good for her. Good concept. [Gary Burton on vibes] He can't keep them quiet. He's so wonderful. She had all of it going at once. First of all, don't do it that fast. Also, do it with just either the piano and her and no vibes or the vibes and her and no piano. It sounded like she was going through a very thick ground covering. I love this song. It's gorgeous, and the verse is beautiful, but it was the wrong treatment.

Something to Live For

(B. Strayhorn)
Come Dream With Me (2001)
Jane Monheit: vocals; Kenny Barron: piano; Christian McBride: bass; Gregory Hutchison: drums

Before: Is that Wesla [Whitfield]? Good. I know this singer. A cabaret singer. I know that phrasing. Very intriguing because I know I've heard this person sing in person. [piano solo] A really fine player. He has a nice feel. That's technique. [vocal embellishments] Who convinced her to do that?

After: Is this Jane? Hopefully, she'll stop that. Maybe she's been encouraged to do that. She has such a pretty voice. I've seen her live, but I haven't heard her recordings. It may impress the hell out of the young people who are listening to her, but it didn't impress me. I mean I cringed when she did a couple of those things. That song in particular, she used the improvisational notes as a way to get through the song as opposed to singing it straight and reading the lyric. This was not a read of a lyric. It was a "look at me, no hands, Mom." That's what that was. I think because of that it kind of failed. She has a lovely voice.

I Really Don't Want to Know

(Robertson & Barnes)
Blue Starr (1957)
Kay Starr: vocals; unidentified guitar, unidentified backing vocals

Ahh, my kind of stuff. There is a voice straight out of the country. Listen to that. That's so country; that dip they do, the little yodel. I heard her every single day growing up. Very distinctive. As soon as you heard Kay Starr, you knew it was Kay Starr.

It's straight the hell out of country music like Patsy Cline. I love Dolly Parton. It's honest. This too. That's a good voice. Boy, the intonation. In those days, no one would even look at you if you didn't sing in tune.

The First Five Chapters

(D. Reeves, based on a poem by Portia Nelson)
In the Moment (2000)
Dianne Reeves: vocals; Otmaro Ruiz: piano; Reginald Veal: bass; Rocky Bryant: drums

Before: She's wonderful. Her placement is wonderful. She's really dead on it. Swinging. Funny. It's not Mary Stallings is it? Mary has a little more edge in there.

After: I should have known, but I still have her Sarah Vaughan album [The Calling] in my head. She's wonderful. Very interesting. Is it an original tune? (Laughs) That's certainly not how Portia would have sung it.



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