Carol Sloane

Jazz Singer

Carol Sloane at Birdland

by Loren Schoenberg
September 2019

My take on what I heard Friday night. It was “awesome”!

Distillation.

According to the dictionary, it represents the action of purifying a liquid by a process of heating and cooling/the extraction of the essential meaning or most important aspects of something It was in ample supply last evening at Birdland courtesy of four past masters of one of the most durable jazz dialects in the music’s history. If that sounds like a far an intellectual or musicological way of suggesting that you really should run down to Birdland to catch the great singer Carol Sloane accompanied by Mike Renzi, Jay Leonhart, and Scott Hamilton, so be it.

All four of these folks have been working at their craft for over 50 years, focused on a purely melodic approach of what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook. What that means is that it is not the harmonic basis of the songs at hand that inspires their flights of fancy, but it is the melodies that spawn everything that they do. This way, every tune sounds different, has its own shape and contour, as opposed to being an excuse for variations on a progression of chords. It is the adoration of the melody.

Carol Sloane presides over everything with the focus of a guru. She began her professional career during the Eisenhower administration, and shortly after JFK took office, her debut album was arranged and conducted by Bill Finegan, who crafted some of the most wonderful, and unfortunately lesser known, orchestrations ever done for a vocalist. Over the course of the subsequent years, Sloane had close musical relationships with Jon Hendricks, Jimmy Rowles, Clark Terry, and others masters of that ilk (there’s a detailed bio on her website if you’re interested (www.carolsloane.com). Imagine how many shows she has done, how many recitals of the superior music that she is naturally attracted to. What is on so majestically on display at Birdland is the distillation and wisdom that comes from all those nights, all those songs.

I caught the first show, and a spell was cast from the moment she walked to the stage to the moment that she left it, after two standing ovations. Many of the songs were well known, a few deliciously obscure (there were also verses galore), and in every case, it was as though you were hearing them for the first time. Very possibly because it was the first set I witnessed (all shows being recorded for an upcoming album/DVD) Sloane seemed to be slowly dipping her toes into the jazz waters as the set progressed, adjusting as she descended further into the waves, and that was perfectly fine. What a joy it was to hear restraint from a jazz vocalist for an entire set; given the high wire act that jazz is at its best, that’s a rarity.

The great majority of the time, Sloane stayed deliciously close to the melody, but with the kind of personal alterations that stamped each interpretation as hers alone, the same art that Bobby Hackett, and Ben Webster practiced with their melodic paraphrases. There was more scatting than one would expect from her, but it was engaging, especially when she was trading with her accompanists.

This sort of analysis/assessment may sound clinical - please know that the impetus for this written expression of musical love was the sheer joy of being transported directly into a world of aesthetic nirvana, courtesy of Ms. Sloane. Her focus is extraordinary and seductive, and it also manifested itself by the musicians she chose to support her.

With Mike Renzi at the piano, one encounters a non-pareil master of this art. It's not hyperbole to say he is one of the greatest currently playing anywhere in the world. And it’s not just the choice of chords, or the space, or the way that every harmonic progression seems to be being invented as we listen – it is also the floating, ethereal sound he conjures from the piano at all times, which makes it all the more effective when he ships into a higher gear. If I ran a music school, or had piano or vocal students, they would be required to spend a semester or more studying with this man. Renzi’s art is inextricably bound to the era of Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, and their peers. I pray it never disappears.

Jay Leonhart, the bassist/composer, is such a musically multifaceted individual, that hearing him function in such a purely accompanimental role is a great pleasure, and is a reminder why he became one of the most in-demand bassists in the day when a relatively small group of jazz musicians were called upon for any number of a variety of musical situations, but always found time to play the music that they loved most of all. In the spontaneous happenings that happened to Birdland last night, there were sudden moments where it was just bass and vocal; on a few of the up-tempo pieces, Jay and Carol swung so hard that it felt like the entire Count Basie band has been reincarnated right there and then.

What can you say about Scott Hamilton? He arrived in New York 43 years ago, and was in the avant-garde of a renaissance of what was called “swing tenor”. Like all superlative artists, the stylistic labels hung on them do more damage than good. Hamilton’s playing was admired by Milt Hinton, Hank Jones, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, to name just a handful who welcomed him with open arms. Suffice it to say that Hamilton has always had his own voice in the tradition as all jazz musicians do (not to mention a tone that is the very definition of svelteness) and his art has only deepened with age. Every sotto voce note he played last night whether in accompaniment or in a series of solos (one in particular, THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU was a masterpiece) are embossed in my memory.

For people who love melody and swing, this is an engagement not to miss.