Carol Welsman: The Sky Is the Limit
By Susan FrancesAmassing an album collection that is fourteen records deep, singer, songwriter, pianist, and solo artist Carol Welsman remains as motivated and exuberant about her craft as the day she entered Berklee College of Music in pursuit of becoming a solo artist. She embraces imperfections as moments of excellence, delays as divine, and crimps in her plans as periods of transcendence. Figuratively speaking, she makes fine wine out of a basket of sour grapes and an exquisite sculpture from a slab of raw marble. She does her best to form an object of beauty, whatever raw materials she is given.
The sky is the limit when it comes to her creativity and flexibility to adjust to the curves along her path, demonstrated in the recording of her newest offering, 14—released in 2022. the album is Welsman’s fourteenth outing as a solo artist and features her exuberant vocals on a selection of swing jazz standards like “Come Fly with Me,” a 1958 swing number composed by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and “Pick Yourself Up,” a showtunes-style novelty composed in 1936 by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
“Some songs hit me based on who is singing them, like Nat King Cole singing ‘Pick Yourself Up,’ arranged and played by George Shearing,” she notes, remarking, “It’s sublime. In fact. It prompted me to copy his arrangement note for note and open my new album with it. So the Shearing arrangement and artist inspired me to sing this song.”
The song selection is a personal choice for Welsman as she examines, “Both melody and lyrics attract me to a song. It’s difficult to say why one works over another, but I guess it’s like choosing fashions and colors to wear. Some appeal to your taste more than others.”
Taking a closer look, she considers, “There are some songs that may have beautiful melodies, but the lyrics are either old-fashioned or unsingable for a woman, for example. It’s wonderful to be able to choose songs in different languages and sing them in their mother tongue.”
She imparts, “We, as singers, are acting a part and telling a story to the audience through the lyrics. Some lyrics hit you over the head, like Jimmy Webb’s ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix.’ When you have experienced this kind of heartbreak, it’s much easier to sing this song with more emotional depth. Every time I sing it, it takes me right back to a specific moment in the past.”
Produced by Romano Musumarra, Welsman explains how she was introduced to him and then chose to work with him on 14, “I met Romano Musumarra when he was producing the #1 pop artist in France, Jeanne Mas. He was writing songs for all kinds of recording artists,” she remembers, “and at the time, he needed an English lyricist. That is when I started actively writing lyrics since I was living in Rome at the time and collaborating with him.”
“We remained in close contact after I moved back to Canada in the ’90s,” she reveals, “and we continued to collaborate at a distance. When I told Romano about the recording we were going to do, he was in Covid lock-down in Rome, so he couldn’t make the sessions in Montreal other than by Zoom.”
“He really had more to do with the mixing sound, which is beautiful,” she praises, “and the post-production. He decided which recording takes were the best. and he polished them. It was fun for him since it was his first jazz production. He can produce any style of music,” she applauds.
Also working with Welsman on 14 are her bandmates, Pierre Côté on guitar and Rémi-Jean LeBlanc on bass. She describes how she met her musicians, “A French-Canadian agent, knowing I spoke French and sang in French as well, booked me on a super tour all around Quebec back in 2005. He highly recommended Pierre Coté as a guitarist. At the first rehearsal, I could tell Pierre was a virtuoso, playing every style with remarkable ease. He has played in my band ever since, and he has recorded on several of my albums.”
“Pierre introduced me to Rémi-Jean Leblanc a few years later,” she recalls. “We have performed many concerts as a trio with no drums, and we just gel in that setting. So, when Jim West at Justin Time Records convinced me to record an intimate jazz trio album last fall, we both knew who would be on the recording.”
“Because of travel restrictions,” she points out, “we were unable to rehearse together, so I pre-produced the tracks to send to the musicians beforehand. The sessions were really fun, and they helped develop the arrangements right then and there.”
Making bridges where none existed before and paving new roadways where obstacles block her path are all part of Welsman’s experience during the recording process of 14. It’s a trait that can be traced back to her upbringing, growing up in Toronto, Canada, among family who is musically inclined and exposed her to a wide range of artists. Each of them found ways around barriers.
“Some early jazz piano influences,” she lists, “were Oscar Peterson for his incredible sense of swing and dexterity, Keith Jarrett for his melodic and harmonic sensibility. He made the piano sound like bells. Herbie Hancock for his laid-back feel and crazy-creative sense of harmony and improvisation, and last but not least, Bill Evans, especially for his lovely block chordal movement through the melodies.”
“Oh, and I can’t forget Ahmad Jamal!” She reveres, “I have never heard anybody leave so much space in a solo, and have it totally make sense. He always sounds like he’s having fun, and with the space, he creates sometimes, he could even grab a coffee and come back to finish the solo! It’s beautiful to think how each of these artists has profoundly influenced me musically.”
“My father introduced me to jazz,” she prides. “He was a huge fan of big band, Sinatra, Peggy Lee. I was the only daughter, and I did everything my Dad did. So, he started taking me to big band concerts when I was 12.”
She recounts, “Singing jazz soon became my favorite thing to do because it was the most challenging and fascinating style of music. I wanted to understand what ‘jazz’ was. Luck would have it that a very good friend of the family had an amazing jazz album collection including every vocalist that ever was, and I spent most of my teen years listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Dina Washington, and more.”
Her introduction to playing the piano was also influenced by family members. “My grandfather, Frank Welsman, the founder of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra,” she provides, “was also a concert pianist. We heard his recorded 78’s as children.”
“My Dad played piano and woodwinds by ear,” she lauds. “My mother taught piano before she married, so she felt it important for her children to study classical piano as a foundation. She started my three brothers and me with piano lessons at age 5. Luckily, we inherited pianos from both grandfathers, so there was always plenty of music in the house.”
“I was lucky to attend a very musical high school in Toronto, Canada,” she proclaims, “and they had a killer big band. While singing with them, all I kept hearing was Berklee College was the place to go for jazz, and many of the players went on to Berklee, as did I.”
She describes Berklee: “The vocal department there was still in its early stages, and it felt more natural for me to major in jazz piano performance. I really didn’t sing at all there. Berklee provided a golden opportunity to play piano in many jazz ensembles, accompanying singers and horn players. I needed to learn advanced harmony and theory, composition and arranging in order to be a well-rounded musician, so it was a very intense time there for two years.”
Welsman released her first solo endeavor Lucky To Be Me, in 1995. “From the beginning,” she maintains, “I think, I always knew I wanted to be a solo artist. My thing was always as a vocalist/pianist, not a piano soloist to accompany others.”
“It was a great prospect to think that I didn’t have to call anyone to perform,” she enthuses. “Accompanying myself on the piano made it possible to perform early on, even while at Berklee in jazz piano bars.”
She muses, “In fact, in the ’80s, I studied singing with Christiane Legrand, Michel Legrand’s sister, in Paris and decided to move there because of so many performing opportunities, both solo gigs, and trio dates. Paul Novotny, producer and co-owner of Sea Jam Records, encouraged me to record Lucky To Be Me.
“I guess the only obstacle recording this album,” she reflects, “was the fact the piano and vocals were being recorded at the same time in the same room with the bass player playing behind a baffle. There was very little correcting to do because you could hear the piano in the vocal mic and vice-versa. That meant there are lots of imperfections on the recording, but many say that album has a special sound because it’s like we were playing live in a jazz club.”
Welsman’s leanings to turn a blemish into a positive result have grown stronger over the course of her solo recordings. Her desire to hone her craft led her to make the move from Toronto to Los Angeles. She outlines the factors that led her to make the transition, “A recording deal lured me down to Los Angeles in 1999, but I didn’t move there until 2003.”
She observes, “LA is not really a jazz town like New York, but I also had a pop side to my music, and it seemed like so many successful jazz/pop artists I loved all lived there. I also met my husband through a friend who lived there.”
“Because of living in LA,” she prefaces, “and being managed by Mel Tormé’s former manager, the opportunity came up to tour Japan in 2004. This was very exciting because all of a sudden, I was on tour buses with famous American jazz artists. Our tour promoter was the #1 jazz promoter in Japan. He subsequently invited us to tour there every 2 years. We even co-produced 3 recordings together, which did very well there.”
“LA was more of a springboard to the jazz world,” she discerns, “because I also met some of my favorite Brazilian artists and American artists, and I’ve been lucky to collaborate over the last 20 years. In fact, because of being in LA, I was fortunate to have albums produced by Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro Neves (The Language of Love), Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip (Carol Welsman), and pianist/arranger Corey Allen (Alone Together).”
A pinnacle moment in her recording history is the making of her release I Like Men: Reflections of Miss Peggy Lee in 2009. She discusses the components that led to making the recording. “I was fortunate to meet pop hit composer Mike Stoller and his wife Corky Hale (jazz pianist/harpist) in LA,” she initiates. “One evening when Corky and I were playing dual jazz pianos, Peggy Lee’s name came up because Mike co-wrote her Grammy-winning song ‘Is That All There Is.’ Mike said he could introduce me to her granddaughter who was living in LA.”
She proceeds, “Holly Foster Wells invited me to her’ studio,’ which was filled with Peggy Lee memorabilia, and Holly started to play me songs either written or recorded by Peggy Lee that I had never heard. It was like she had opened a treasure chest of undiscovered music.”
“It was my publicist’s idea,” she admits, “to record the tribute to Peggy Lee, especially since we had recorded a few Peggy Lee songs for a Benny Goodman tribute album that was released only in Japan in 2008.”
“Holly shared a ballad,” she cherishes, “one of the last songs Peggy Lee wrote that only Michael Feinstein had recorded called ‘Angels On Your Pillow.’ I burst into tears on first listen, and Holly encouraged me to record it. Then came the album.”
“Younger generations,” she proposes, “should be very inspired by the fact that Peggy Lee was not only a Grammy-winning vocalist, but she wrote over 150 songs throughout her career, including two verses of the classic ‘Fever,’ for which she didn’t receive credit. She also co-wrote all the songs in Disney’s hit musical The Lady and the Tramp. Peggy Lee was a trailblazer, and many of her original songs are American songbook classics.”
Another high point in Welsman’s solo work is the making of her 2020 recording of Dance with Me. A duet she performed with Dominican vocalist Juan Luis Guerra. She recollects how the duet came together. “In 2017, we were on a jazz festival tour in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. My friend and renowned producer Corey Allen had moved to Santo Domingo and was working extensively in the music business there. At the time, he happened to be teaching Juan Luis Guerra jazz piano.”
“I knew of Juan Luis,” she shares, “but didn’t know he was the James Taylor of Latin music! He has sold over 30 million albums! Corey played Juan Luis a few tracks from my 2015 album Alone Together, which Corey produced, and when he told Juan Luis I was coming to the Dominican Republic, Juan Luis invited us to his home/studio to spend an afternoon jamming with his entire band.”
“It was such a pleasure to meet Juan Luis,” she extols, “and this day remains one of the most memorable jam sessions ever with his fabulous musicians. Corey tipped me off to a song of Juan Luis’ entitled ‘Si tû no bailas conmigo’ before I got there, and I played a re-harmonized version for him with an English adaptation lyric I had penned. He loved it.”
She advances, “We stayed in touch by email, and in late 2019, when Oscar Hernandez, multi-Grammy winner, was writing the Latin jazz arrangements for my Dance With Me album, he said, ‘We have to include Juan Luis’ song.’ That’s when I found the nerve to ask Mr. Guerra if he would ever agree to sing an English/Spanish duet of the song for the album. He graciously accepted, only it was no longer possible to travel due to the beginning of the pandemic. So, we sent my vocal tracks to him, and he recorded his Spanish parts and sent them back. Amazing. Then he agreed to appear in a music video of the duet that we put together of people around the world dancing to his song. Magic memories.”
Welsman gives meaning to the timeless adage that where there is a will, there is a way. She regards, “I think we create our own destiny in many ways. Music chose me. There was never any doubt in my mind that I had to pursue it. It’s a true privilege to do something your whole life, playing and singing music, that makes so many people happy.”
“There have been many ups and downs and disappointments along the way,” she acknowledges, “but it’s a blessing to have been given the gift of music and a voice to sing. That alone makes me want to keep growing in both sound and spirit as an artist.”
Aside from making music, Welsman opens herself up to other experiences, as she details, “Tennis and languages have always been inspiring to me, and thanks to the past few years, I’ve had much more time to spend becoming better at both.”
“Teaching jazz voice has become a passion again of late,” she cites. “I’m on the Faculty at California State University, Long Beach, and the students are so incredibly talented and motivated. It is a true pleasure to work with them.”
When it comes to what Welsman can achieve in making her recordings, the sky is the limit. Her flexibility to adjust to obstacles along her path is inspiring, and her optimism in turning imperfections into works of excellence is admirable. Whatever raw materials she is given, she does her best to hone them into an object of beauty, as she has done with her newest release, 14.
About Susan Frances:Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.