Review: Barbara Carroll Sustains a Profound Jazz Symbiosis
Barbara Carroll, who has been performing since the late 1940s, knows practically every jazz and popular standard in the repertory. Santiago Mejia/The New York Times
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Jazz may not be the ideal forum for conveying a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom. But for Barbara Carroll, nicknamed the first lady of jazz piano, it is a kind of philosophical scripture that balances improvisation and playful invention with a classical sense of order. Her collaboration with her longtime bassist, Jay Leonhart, is a musical friendship that grows deeper and more touching as each year passes.
There are no shortcuts to this kind of artistic rapport, which suggests the marriage of a couple who know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences. It allows them to play sophisticated games of follow-the-leader and to end musical sentences with simultaneous exclamations. At their friskiest they convey a pure, childlike pleasure.
Ms. Carroll, who has been performing since the late 1940s, when she helped pioneer a spare, agile style of bebop, knows practically every jazz and popular standard in the repertory. The songs of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk sit comfortably beside those of Cy Coleman and Stephen Sondheim. Her normally calm, demure deportment doesn’t preclude from swinging with a moderate pace. And at 91, Ms. Carroll plays with an impeccable technique in which harmonies burst into flower. In recent decades she has embraced singing in a parlando style that is witty, literate, discreetly sexy and at times heartbreakingly honest.
Saturday’s performance included an extended Ellington medley that demonstrated Ms. Carroll’s gift at stringing songs into streams of consciousness as fluid and changeable as the weather. In the slower numbers, she and Mr. Leonhart, 75, explored the spaces between phrases, building an emotional suspense that left you hanging on every syllable and vocal inflection.
An instrumental version of the great jazz ballad “Midnight Sun” was treated as the entranced contemplation of a spellbound dreamer gazing at shooting stars in the summer sky. Mr. Leonhart’s gently bowed bass served as an anchor for Ms. Carroll’s soaring and dipping pianism, which with its rich clustered harmonies and Ms. Carroll’s delicate touch suggested Debussy with a jazz pulse.
Most remarkable was her rendition of her latter-day signature song, the Sondheim ballad “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” which she played and sang with eyes closed. Watching this elegant woman with towering red hair and head held high was to be gently reminded of life’s deepest mysteries.