Liner notes by Rex Reed
Here are some of the things I love: the fragrant bouquet of peonies and lilacs, the magical face of Audrey Hepburn, the sublime taste of lemon meringue pie, the stylish warmth of Brooks Brothers polo coats, and the misty voice of singer-pianist Carol Welsman. The first ones you can smell, watch, taste, and wear. But songs sung and played by Carol Welsman are a thrill you can only feel and experience with awe but find hard to explain, like your first ride on a roller coaster.
Since she moved from her native Canada to California in 2002 to make Hollywood her home, she’s turned out half a dozen jazz collections that have already reached a top rung on the ladder to stardom in the exclusive field of girl singers in a jazz world dominated by men. But with each new CD (I still call them albums) she soars even higher. Alone Together is the proof. It’s dusky, dreamy and altogether enduring. Her triumphs include tributes to Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman, and several with Latin flavors. She speaks four languages and has an enormous fan base in Brazil.
No confining “theme” this time. Just lyric interpretations of timeless classics that inform and enliven lush standards with the nuanced phrasing that has become her talisman. In a recording business run by lawyers and accountants and monster corporations, her hand-picked selections have an air of uncompromising individuality that reflect her taste and talent uniquely. If she sounds like she was brought up in a cradle rocked by Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum, this is as it should be.
Music is in her DNA. Her grandfather founded the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, her parents were both musicians who kicked things up a notch by teaching Carol and her three brothers to play most of the 15 musical instruments around the house, and her father took her to concerts at 12 to listen to George Shearing, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Count Basie. As a singer, she started belting out My Darling Clementine in her high chair when she was two. When other little girls were listening to nursery rhymes, Carol was humming riffs by Ella, Bird and Miles.
The piano came later. At five she started studying classical piano, and went on to pursue jazz piano performance, arranging, composition and theory during the day at the tough Berklee College of Music in Boston, while playing and singing in clubs at night. She was already so advanced that she graduated in two years, went to Paris to polish the craft of singing with French vocal icon Christiane Legrand (Michel’s sister).
Now married to celebrated criminal defense attorney, and current candidate for U.S. Senate from California, Pat Harris, she’s settled into a comfortable life with a great house, two Labradors, a swimming pool and a hot tub, but the beat goes on. “I had to overcome huge hurdles before I could develop a definitive sound,” she confides, “but what I care about is the feelings and emotions in every song that must work before a listener can really get the message. The challenges in a career of singing good quality jazz never cease, but I have always followed my heart.”
It has paid off. With all the right elements in a single package, she handles a diverse repertoire with white-glove treatment, paying careful attention to mood, dynamics and clarity but without the self-indulgence that plagues so many young singers in a cabaret milieu overrun with 18-year-old girls singing Lush Life. Save me! What Carol does, on the other hand, is lyrical embroidery. Witness the creative process in what you are about to hear. Blessed with so many musical gifts—taste, time, projection and a rhythmic sense of when to change chords — Carol’s piano is beyond reproach, warm yet rhythmically sharp, giving her voice a perfect hammock of support to swing in.
The ease of her singing makes her delicate technique artfully deceptive. You sometimes get the impression she is winging it when in fact her easy, controlled style is part of an exquisitely developed, musically enriched craft that comes along once in a purple sunset. The result is part girl next door, part smoky been-around saloon chick. Did I forget to mention she is also a spectacular, camera-ready looker?
And the repertoire is as flawless as the personnel. The famous Sammy Cahn-Axel Stordahl-Paul Weston standard Day By Day is the only song with the strength to survive a 60-minute flop called I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, with Broderick Crawford as a gangster with a passion for writing song lyrics. It Might as Well Be Spring is the evergreen from State Fair the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had no faith in, reserving their misguided enthusiasm for That’s For Me. It’s been sung by everyone from Sinatra to Sting, but never with as much poignancy as Carol brings to the table here. Frank Loesser’s Sand in My Shoes, introduced by Connie Boswell in a 1941 flop called Something for the Boys gets a florid flourish so tropical you can almost feel the rush of a cool wave brushing your sunburned sandals. Gertrude Lawrence never did the proper justice to My Ship, the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin classic from Lady in the Dark, but Carol is so connected to her material that she sets the record straight at last. The gorgeous trumpet solo is by Wallace Roney.
The after-midnight mood of the entire collection is personified by the title tune, Alone Together, a celebration of the eternal songwriting talents of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz that also provides an unimpeachable illustration of Carol’s fluidity, conviction and musical savvy. On every Carol Welsman album, you can expect the unexpected. Nestled among the creamy ballads and hot swingers, she peppers the landscape with a revelation I’ve never heard before. The big one here is Disappointed, an adventure in time and tempo with the quirky wit of Eddie Jefferson’s lyrics set to a Charlie Parker sax solo from a section of George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good. It’s a musical pretzel about love, loss and not-so-gracefully letting go that can best be described as a first cousin to the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross classic, Twisted. Positively dazzling.
Back to a mood of moss-covered introspection, If the Moon Turns Green, a Bernie Hanighen jazz artifact she recorded years ago with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves, is the perfect jazz aria much beloved by Carmen McRae. Enhanced by the superb rhythm section of Rufus Reid on bass and drummer Lewis Nash, Carol preserves it in amber. You Taught My Heart to Sing is Sammy Cahn again, with patrician guitar chords by Jay Azzolina. Another favorite jazz stylist, the late singer Joe Derise, is responsible for the funk and throb of The Blues Are Out of Town, with co-writer Marcia Hillman. On an exquisite I Didn’t Know About You, the sterling-silver collaboration by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell from 1944, Carol travels the curves and contours of a marvelous memory piece with no detours. And finally, Jule Styne’s Killing Time features the final heartbreaking lyric ever written by the great Carolyn Leigh — another example of Carol’s passion for under-exposed songs worth hearing. With a fervor for patrician jazz mixed with true grit, her fluidity, conviction and musicianship seems deceptively effortless. But her fractured tempos, natural phrasing, a moonstruck hint of honeysuckle in her haunted voice and an ability to prune away any suggestion of clutter bring out the essence and intimacy of this music with a joy that is very rare indeed.
I’m not an easy pushover, but she’s got what it takes to take me.