The short list of active jazz vocalists forged in the crucible of the 1950s scene, when earning esteem required honing an individual sound, includes Carol Sloane—as this album makes gloriously evident. Too prolific a recording artist to qualify as overlooked and too widely admired to be a cult figure, Sloane still seems grievously undervalued given the pleasure of her company.
Her first new album in a dozen years is a milestone-marking gift celebrating the 60th anniversary of her first album, 1962’s Live at 30th Street (originally released on Columbia and yet to be reissued in North America). Unlike her debut—a studio session with invited guests—Live at Birdland (recorded in 2019) captures then-82-year-old Sloane kibitzing with the audience and offering incisive commentary on her repertoire.
There’s an elegance to the set that bears close study, starting with the jaunty, boastful opener “Havin’ Myself a Time.” Her voice has certainly lost some luster from her prime, but she retains her cool warmth, agile phrasing, and nonpareil sense of time. Buoyed by superlative support from pianist Mike Renzi and bassist Jay Leonhart, and Scott Hamilton’s convivial tenor sax chatter, Sloane wrings every last drop of emotion from each song. She tosses in a few brisk swingers, like “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” but this autumnal program centers on loss and fear of loss, including devastating renditions of “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” and “If I Should Lose You.” Her smartly paired medley of “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” amplifies and somehow diffuses the self-pity running through both standards.
The stroke she suffered in 2020 means that Live at Birdland is likely her valedictory statement. For jazz lovers everywhere, thank you, Ms. Sloane.