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Carol Sloane: Setting New Standards


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Sloane has almost always gotten the big things right. Listen to any of her records and you will hear a singer with excellent intonation, superb time and a genuine feel for the meaning of a lyric.
In her concert appearances, Carol Sloane often sings a lovely ballad called "An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine." Listening to Ms. Sloane extol the virtues of age and experience in a voice as soft and warm as angora wool, it is hard not to conclude that the sentiments of the lyric have an even more specific application to the art of jazz. The truth is that no matter how hot a young musician might be at a given moment, there is an expectation on the part of the jazz audience that the next concert or the next record will be better than the one before. Jazz rests on a tripod of craft, judgment and talent with talent being the only gift bestowed by nature. If a jazz musician is not better at 40 than he or she was at 20, then something has gone awry.

Still, talent, judgment and craft are rarely limitless commodities, and most artists eventually reach a point where their work begins to plateau or even decline. So when I Never Went Away, Carol Sloane's latest album, roughly her 24th, appeared on the HighNote label at the end of 2001, most fans and critics probably assumed the law of diminishing marginal returns would apply. After all, this is an internationally acclaimed singer whose career stretches back to the 1950s and whose work, particularly in the last fifteen years, has drawn near-universal praise. Could Carol Sloane's singing really get any better? The answer, it turns out, is yes.

I Never Went Away does not reflect a change in Carol Sloane's style so much as a refinement of her art. Sloane has almost always gotten the big things right. Listen to any of her records and you will hear a singer with excellent intonation, superb time and a genuine feel for the meaning of a lyric. Happily, her placement, timbral control and diction have never been better. Of course, technical improvements around the margins would not be enough to turn heads. What really separates Sloane's recent work, both on record and live, is the consistency with which she illuminates the details of a song. Sloane's greatest performances have always occurred when her musical and lyrical concentration have been tightly focused. When her attention wanders, whether due to dissatisfaction or unfamiliarity with the material, the accompaniment or the surroundings, the results tend to be pleasantly generic. However, when she is on her game, Sloane engages in jazz singing of the highest order—richly nuanced and emotionally compelling. On I Never Went Away, she is not only on her game but also at the top of it. Her concentration does not lapse even once resulting in not only the most satisfying album of her career, but one of finest examples of jazz singing in recent memory.

Like her idol and close friend Carmen McRae, Carol Sloane strips away all the barriers between her performance and her material. She doesn't dramatize a song so much as skillfully unfold it. Each song has a story and like every good storyteller, Sloane understands the value of pacing, foreshadowing and suspense. Unlike other jazz singers who expect the audience to do the work, Sloane actively engages her listeners but without resorting to the use of mannerisms, histrionics or theatrics. At a recent live performance, she sang Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "The Folk Who Live on the Hill" as an encore. Sloane transformed the song, with its antiquated lyric of middle class aspirations, into a deeply moving, three-dimensional meditation on the dreams we use get us through life. Her ability to make something fresh out of the familiar is only matched by her capacity to make something familiar out of the new. I Never Went Away is filled with wonderful, obscure tunes, and Sloane makes each song sound distinct and memorable. She doesn't need to use the crutch of well-known songs because she understands that a good story well told has universal appeal.

Although she places the utmost importance on words, Carol Sloane does not allow the need for lyric interpretation to inhibit improvisation. Having earned her stripes in the 1950s and 1960s, she has something of a pre-Betty Carter sensibility, which means that while Sloane might venture far out on the musical limb, she doesn't treat improvisation as an exercise in abstraction. A good number of jazz singers improvise as if they are slicing up a chord sequence with a carving knife. Sloane, by contrast, changes the contours of song. She makes curves out of straight lines and transforms flat plains into hills but always with a clear grasp of the song's overall structure. Sloane understands that a melody, even an improvised one, is more than a series of notes played in succession; it is the expression of a musical idea.

She essays those musical ideas with a voice that seems to do pretty much everything she asks of it. Listen to her hypnotic reading of "I See a Million People," the Una Mae Carlisle/Robert Sour tune that opens I Never Went Away. Accompanied by Paul Bollenback on guitar and Kenny Washington on brushes, Sloane sings with a delicacy rarely heard in jazz. Her performance is so quiet and soft that the song feels as fragile as a spider's web. The gossamer effect is so perfectly realized that it is easy to overlook the strength and support behind the voice. The notes are on pitch and sung not spoken. Sloane is no wispy minimalist; a fact that becomes readily apparent with the next track, "How Could You Do A Thing Like That To Me?." The song, largely unheard since the Frank Sinatra record in the late 1950s, becomes an opportunity for Sloane to cut lose. Her voice is strong and resonant, and she uses it with a foot stomping authority that has become even more pronounced on her live performances of the tune. Yet, even when opening up her voice and turning up the heat, Sloane never shouts, belts or screams. The skillful manipulation of timbre and volume, as well as the exacting intonation and vocal flexibility, suggest a singer who knows every nook and cranny of her own voice. Listen to her effortlessly navigate "Cottontail," a daunting vocalese piece based on the Ben Webster solo in the Duke Ellington Orchestra's recording of the tune. Of course, it only sounds easy. The performance is actually the end result of discipline and hard work.

The same set of values can be heard in her approach to time. Sloane seems to swing as naturally as she breathes. On Billy Strayhorn's "Maybe," she sounds so relaxed and unhurried that unless you start counting out the beat, you won't notice how hard she is actually swinging. Sloane's tendency to make difficult things sound easy has probably resulted in her being undervalued by critics who often confuse pyrotechnics for technique.

Of course, those same critics often fail to appreciate that in vocal jazz it's not so much about the quality of the voice as it is the quality of the ears attached to it, and Carol Sloane has, figuratively speaking, big ears. Although she doesn't read music, she hears it (check out her blindfold test). On "To You," a gorgeous Thad Jones melody with lyrics by Jon Hendricks, Sloane sings almost note for note a Quentin Jackson trombone solo from the recording by the Count Basie and Duke Ellington Orchestras on the album First Time. She uses those ears to find great tunes nobody else is singing like Richard Rodney Bennett's "I Never Went Away" and Ivan Lins's "I'm Not Alone." They also help her find great musicians to work with like her current accompanist Norman Simmons, who has played for Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Anita O'Day and Joe Williams. Sloane's ears also led her into jazz when, at the age of ten, she heard Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, opening for Oscar Peterson at the Village Vanguard), or her breakthrough (the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival and Out of the Blue, her debut album on Columbia Records). If prompted, she will recall the triumphs (the prestigious gigs, the acclaimed records) and the set backs (the missed opportunities, the day jobs) of her fascinating career. However, the truth is that Carol Sloane would much rather talk about 2002 than 1992 or 1962. Like any true artist, she is intensely focused on her present work and with good reason. While many singers seem weighed down by the baggage they accumulate through the years, Carol Sloane has used the ups and downs of her career to whittle away at the excess. She has found that the greatest level of complexity most often lies in the simplest modes of expression.

Discussions of vocal jazz over the last twenty years have centered around three questions. The most often asked question has been whether a jazz singer will ever be able to connect with the general non-jazz public. Diana Krall and others have settled that controversy. The second question has been whether there were any new horizons left for jazz singers to explore. Cassandra Wilson and others have resolved that debate. The least discussed, but arguably most important, question is whether any jazz singers working today could produce the kind of timeless, highly personal work that would warrant their placement in the vocal jazz pantheon. Carol Sloane has pretty much answered that one. As vocal jazz moves into a new century, it does so not only with new stars and new trailblazers, but also new legends. Thankfully, as I Never Went Away proves, Carol Sloane's legend is still being written.



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