Carol Sloane

Jazz Singer

From Duke Ellington to Rabbit Songs
Carol Sloane at Top o' the Senator

by Robert Cushman National Post, July 1, 2004

This week's jazz festival line-up at the Top o' the Senator includes three uncommon vocalists. Monday night was a one-night stand for the soft-voiced singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin. Tuesday to Thursday, the room belongs to Carol Sloane, one of the last singers in the classic tradition to count as an original rather than a revivalist.

To put it another way, she may, in her sixties, be the youngest extant singer to have worked with Benny Goodman. She's also about the best-regarded female jazz singer in the United States, and on Tuesday night's evidence she deserves to be.

Her voice is velvet. I arrived late and hurried and found myself instantly soothed. Sloane was half-way through the Duke Ellington- Billy Strayhorn Day Dream, a sublime song in its own right though with a challenging melodic line; it practically demands that the singer be flawless, and she never once rent the fabric.

Her voice has sometimes been compared to Ella Fitzgerald's; both indeed have an instantly captivating tone, but I have never heard any particular similarity beyond that. On this date, though, I noticed an unexpected resemblance to Peggy Lee; Sloane has deeper tones than Peggy's, and more of them, but she sings with Lee's guileful confiding ease, and with something of the same gossamer impudence.

She does I'm Glad There Is You as a tribute to Sarah Vaughan, with whom she shares a complete mastery of pitch; it's a different kind of pitch -- she murmurs where Vaughan soared -- and, to my ear, more affecting. The song is the kind of wondering, contented ballad that finds her at her best, subtly varying the melody in order to bring out unnoticed twists and felicities in the lyric; others that she freshened in this way include It's Easy to Remember, Midnight Sun (possibly the best version I've heard) and, of all overdone things, Stardust; has it occurred to anyone before to sing "sometimes I wonder why" as a single phrase, rather than pausing before the last word?

She steers mostly clear of wrist-slashing torch-songs; The Night We Called It a Day, pointed with thoughtful nods of the head, was philosophical rather than suicidal, and the better for it. I wish, if she's going to do multiple choruses of The Lady's in Love with You, that she would use more of Frank Loesser's excellent lyrics rather than singing the same one every time; and her outright swingers are nothing special.

Unless, that is, you count her showpiece, the number that she introduces as "the Rabbit Song": a virtuoso set of Peter Rabbit lyrics, attached by Jon Hendricks to Ellington's Cottontail. Sloane sails through a tongue-twisting text that it used the take the entire team of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to deliver, briefly illustrating the title by flourishing a white napkin from her posterior.

She has great unpretentious rapport with her audience and with her superb trio; and was plainly having as wonderful a time on the stand as we were in the room.

Tomorrow night brings Kevin Mahogany who, with a rich resilient voice and an eclectic repertoire, is probably the most exciting male singer to emerge in the last 20 years. As the latest member of the "black baritone" school of singers, he'll be paying tribute to Johnny Hartman, the greatest of them all.