Carol266

THIS CD was made in an age of war, with so many American lives in disarray and people struggling to hang on. We need soothing, and we seek it in many forms. It’s no wonder that the best-seller lists are filled with books of healing and reassurance, or that the acoustic feelgood music of newcomer Norah Jones caught on as it did.

Carol Sloane has made dozens of albums, starting in 1961. Her work is admired by some of the greatest artists in jazz, and by discerning audiences here and in Japan. It always was. But her feather pillow of a voice seems more welcome now than ever. Lyrical improvisations flow out of her. Her time is so secure, her delivery at any tempo so relaxed, her remarks onstage so bright and articulate, that her performances are deeply comforting. As long as she’s onstage, or a record of hers is playing, one feels as though nothing can go wrong.

She made
Whisper Sweet in late April 2003, immediately after a six-night engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard. The war in Iraq was long underway, but the music Carol made in the studio was serene. For her second album on HighNote, the label’s owner, Joe Fields, wanted her to focus on the sort of tried-and-true standards she’s known for. What resulted is an album of mellow midnight jazz: songs as familiar as old friends, performed by five musicians and a singer who know how expressive quiet can be.

If her singing has stayed consistently warm and pure, acceptance of it has been fitful. Carol started at the top with a debut album on Columbia. Its title came from a review by
New York Times critic John S. Wilson, who had heard her at the Newport Jazz Festival in the summer of 1961. An “unusually promising singer,” he wrote, had “appeared, seemingly, out of the blue.” Heady moments followed the release of Out of the Blue. Carol opened for Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen at the Village Vanguard and sang frequently on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; film director Peter Bogdonavich wrote the liner notes for her second album.

But by the mid-‘60s, Barbra Streisand and Bob Dylan were the sweethearts of Columbia. In the jazz world, harsher sounds drowned out Carol’s straight-ahead singing. The woman whom
Down Beat had predicted would “make a lot of noise in the music business” ended up reviewing other singers’ records in that magazine and working as a secretary.

How she climbed out of a very dark hole will be explained in the memoir she’s now writing. Carol lives, calmly at last, in Stoneham, Massachusetts with her husband, Buck Spurr, who works (almost too fittingly) in the horseracing business. He also books the Colony, a Palm Beach cabaret. Mrs. Spurr’s ascent in recent years has been well documented in the
New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the New Yorker. But for her, success always depended on “whether or not jazz musicians recognized me, smiled at me, and seemed to acknowledge that I could ‘do’ it.”

Carol earned that respect from her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, who also became her friend in the ‘70s. More affirmation came from Fitzgerald’s pianist at the time: the late Jimmy Rowles, one of the most eloquent soloists and accompanists in jazz. He and Carol lived together for years, and even shared a PBS special,
Carol & Jimmy, in 1982. On a Rowles album she found Whisper Sweet, a lovely mid-‘30s rarity by James P. Johnson, the stride piano master. The other songs here don’t need comment; every fan of this music knows them. What’s remarkable is how fresh Carol and the band make them sound. Singing such classics is “a real challenge,” says Carol, who compares it to “removing the outer leaves of an artichoke, just to get to the heart of a song with no frills.”

That was certainly the approach of Carmen McRae, another of her favorites and friends. Carol was thrilled to team up a few years ago with Norman Simmons, the pianist and arranger who accompanied McRae for a decade, starting in 1960. Many other great singers, notably Joe Williams, have benefited from his bluesy, spacious touch. “He makes me feel as if I’m floating,” says Carol. “I am hardly aware he’s there until that moment when he plays just the right chord or accent.” A good bassist, she says, “keeps the pulse and inserts his own accents at appropriate moments.” Paul West, who works with Norman and Abbey Lincoln, “is like that – solid and consistent. I love his work.” Drummer Grady Tate has accompanied too many jazz legends to list here. “His time never wavers,” says Carol. “And he’s a good guy to have around between sets because he can be so funny.”

Paul Bollenback’s elegant guitar playing can be heard on four solo albums for Challenge, and on many more with Joey DeFrancesco and other leaders. Fans of the late Etta Jones know saxophonist Houston Person as her soulful alter ego, a service he provides here for Carol. They may not know that he’s made about forty albums under his own name, stretching back to 1966.

Does Carol often look back on her own long journey? “Oh, yes,” she says in her velvety voice. “I started singing professionally in 1952” – she was then fifteen – “so I think, does that means I’ve been in the business for fifty-one years?”

I asked her what singing means to her at this particular time in her life. “That will take some thought,” she said, promising to email a response. “It won’t be long; I just need to word that carefully.” Later that day her message arrived, with my question restated. Her answer appeared in big letters:

EVERYTHING.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2003

[James Gavin’s work has appeared in the
New York Times, Vanity Fair, and TV Guide. He is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, published by Knopf.]