I was born in the metaphorical trunk. Both my parents were on the stage. My father understudied Ivor Novello. Mother was always a shoo-in for Lady MacB***. Their tastes, and those of their extravagant friends, many of whom were employed to babysit me, were Bohemian, theatrical – camp, even.
We acquired somehow, a radiogram with a Garrard autochange deck that stacked six LPs at a time. I imbibed with my mother’s milk (with a dash of vodka) and the smell of size coming off the flats in the grimy postwar repertory theatres, the music of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Judy Garland – Marlene Dietrich, to name just the female line of divas who, I was constantly assured, were ‘absolutely marvellous, darling’. (None compared, of course, in my mother’s fantasies, with Frank Sinatra…)
Later, although my parents had signally failed to raise their son as entirely gay, I discovered for myself and mentally added to the previous list, another line of female singers, that included the divine Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Anita O’Day, Annie Ross – Nina Simone. I hope I am not missing too many out, it’s been a long time. I noted too, my father’s weird attachment to Zarah Leander.
British late-evening television arts programmes and provocative satire shows in the 1960s followed the US habit of introducing a musical interlude, requiring just the right degree of louche sophistication that light jazz provided. Thus, I became aware of Blossom Dearie, Millicent Martin, Marion Montgomery – Cleo Laine, with her incredible, four-octave range – and later, Anita Wardell and Trudy Kerr. Later still, of course, came your Cassandra Wilsons and Esperanza Spaldings, Diana Krall, Norah Jones – with a brief flash of Amy Winehouse.
In 2009 I turned 60, and, madly deciding I might yet manage to embark on a late-flowering career, decided to turn myself from a mediocre chorister into a jazz singer; the problem being, there is no proper jazz in Aberystwyth, where I had found myself living; and no-one to accompany me, who understood about jazz phrasing and the tradition of reinterpreting ‘standards’ from Tin Pan Alley, blues, showtunes, ‘torch songs’ and ballads, exemplified by all the tremendous ladies I have listed here (and a few men – don’t get me started on Mark Murphy, Buddy Greco, Mel Tormé). Familiarity with the historic arrangements is all-important.
So, along with sixteen women and one other male singer (guys, just consider that ratio!), I signed-up on the interweb thing for a jazz singers’ workshop in southeast France; sent off all my money, battled for three days with trains and boats and planes (and taxis) to get to the venue (an agreeable chateau with two swimming pools), and found myself enjoying the best week, bar none, of my life, singing under the tuition of the unbelievable Ms Carroll.
This entire preamble is by way of confessing that I actually know Liane slightly, hence any possible bias; and for the purpose of stating, on the basis of some experience, that I consider her to be more than worthy of a place in the Pantheon of the top female jazz singers, ever.
Comparisons are odious. One cannot say this or that singer is ‘the best’, or even ‘better than…’, as they have all had to work within the constraints of the prevailing commercial ethos, the musical accompaniment and the fashions of their time. From their individually unique experiences, often guided by producers and arrangers, they developed their own individual styles, and built a new world of jazz ‘on the shoulders’ of their own giants. Now, today’s singers build on theirs.
But Liane is like switching-on colour television for the first time: she draws on such an astonishingly vibrant palette of sounds and emotions. A thoughtful and intelligent singer with enormous range, power, lyricism, an adventurous approach and natural phrasing, she is the synthesis of all the best of her musical heritage, who wastes not a single note, who takes no musical phrase at face value. Notes are not a commodity to be sprayed around in the generalised service of ‘jazz feel’, or ‘chops’, but an infinite series of opportunities to find new expression and interpretation. Each phrase she sings is like an individual brushstroke: considered, explored, personal: a microcosmic musical world in its own right. In short, she has technique – and in spades. But she doesn’t let it get in the way of telling the story.
Her sheer musicality – she is an accomplished jazz pianist too, sensibly married to a virtuosic bass player – and breadth of technique, pay homage to so many fabulous singers of the past, yet are entirely her own. She is unbelievably versatile: there is no style of singing, short of operatic (I imagine!), that she will not attempt, often within the envelope of a single number; and bring her own quirky perspective and total, balls-out commitment to it.
Whether an overperformed standard like ‘My Funny Valentine’ or a romantic Michel Legrand tear-jerker, a rough-edged Tom Waites or Todd Rundgren ballad, a haunting version of Bill Evans’ ‘Turn Out the Stars’, a belting soul arrangement of Becaud’s perfervid ‘What Now My Love?’, the soft gospel feel of ‘Some Children See Him’ or an emotionally complicated song by Laura Nyro, on whatever budget she can afford she makes every recorded track and every live performance entirely unique. Her explosive rendition of ‘Witchcraft’ on the 2011 album Up and Down could be one of the most exciting jazz performances you will ever hear, though it lasts only a breathtaking 2’45”. Her collaboration with Gwylim Simcock on Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About the Boy’, on the 2012 Ballads album, points the way to a higher musical reality. Her willingness to boldly go where no jazz singer has gone before has even extended to appearing on drum ‘n’ bass recordings with London Elektricity.
Is Liane a glamorous American star, from LA, then, or Hackensack, New Jersey? No, Liane is British, from a humdrum commuter town in Surrey, and a grandmother. You could not meet anyone more ordinary, less pretentious. In the crass and insensitive words of the hapless sports reporter John Inverdale, she is not really ‘a looker’. This possibly makes her more difficult to market: although she increasingly commands bigger arrangements, brass sections and strings, she has not got a contract with a major record label but records privately, in small studios; probably by choice.
Yet she commands the support of many of the best of the current talented crop of modern British jazz musicians. In addition to Simcock, arguably the nearest thing we have in this country to a musical genius, she works regularly with James MacMillan, Kirk Whalum, Kenny Wheeler, husband Roger Carey, John Paricelli, Mark James, Bobby Welling, Simon Purcell, Julian Siegel… Ian Shaw.
I honestly don’t know how well known Liane is in the wider world, it is not a place I go to very often. I suspect hardly at all. She has made perhaps nine or ten albums, toured extensively, played the clubs, been on the wireless, won awards (not enough!). But you seldom hear about her, unless you are in the inner circle of jazz aficionados. No media pack follows her every move, no secret heartbreaks are slavishly reported. She has never appeared on the cover of Hello! magazine, so far as I know.
It seems to me, regardless, that she is very probably the finest jazz singer of her generation and bids fair to belong in the company of the very best of all time. The public’s loss is our gain.
Visit her web site: http://www.lianecarroll.co.uk