Singer-pianist Carroll doesn’t just play and sing; she takes the audience on an emotional journey which might start, end and be punctuated with rib-tickling jokes but includes detours via various levels of gut-wrenching, heart-rending ballads, swinging standards and raucous blues.
Wherever she goes during her show, Carroll takes enraptured listeners with her; there’s no “her and us” about it – it’s very much a shared experience, and one which leaves no emotional stone un-turned. It’s no wonder everyone from Gerry Rafferty, with whom she toured and recorded, to Joe Stilgoe, who penned the title track of her forthcoming album Seaside, has wanted her to sing their songs.
For Carroll, it’s essential to have the audience on the journey with her. “Singing is communicating,” she says, “so I don’t feel I’m up there on my own. I have the audience with me, and we have a laugh together.” That community feeling undoubtedly stems from the 51-year-old’s first musical experiences, when she was encouraged to sing and play in her grandparents’ home in Hastings, where, from the age of six, she lived with her mother. “It was a daft household but very musical,” she recalls, with a giggle.
Carroll’s parents were semi professional singers. “They sang at the Country Club in Eastbourne – that’s how they met. Me mum had sung for a while in the 1950s with the Ken Mackintosh Band. Me nan played the piano, and I took to it early. I was taught by a concert pianist who lived locally. She was a bit of a dragon – she would threaten to snip my hair if I made any mistakes. I really thought she might do it, and one time I wore my hair in a beret so it was out of sight. Me mum said: ‘What are you doing?’ and I explained – and she had a word with her.”
Having heard and liked jazz being played and sung at home, Carroll got hooked on it in her early teens, and her listening tastes changed from the Osmonds (“I was in love with Donnie”) and the Bay City Rollers to big band music, with which she became obsessed. “I saw the BBC Radio Big Band doing a tribute to the bandleader Ted Heath, and then got into Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson… Me mum and nan used to take me to different gigs and then when I was about 16 I started to go by myself. I’d go up to London on the train and stay with a couple of relatives and come back down. It was lovely. It didn’t happen very regularly but it was my treat.”
By this time, Carroll had begun to teach herself how to play jazz. “Towards the end of my grade exams, I really enjoyed playing jazz but it wasn’t really encouraged in those days. It was [she assumes a snooty voice]: ‘Oh well, if you like that kind of thing…’. Which of course just made me do it even more, and practise doing it even more.”
What did her schoolmates think of this obsession – or was playing and listening to jazz a closet activity? “On the whole, I think it was pretty much accepted,” says Carroll. “A few people thought I was a bit weird not wanting to go to discos, but I didn’t have much confidence about going to discos and I did prefer jazz. I wasn’t that sociable; I wasn’t one of the alpha girls, the popular girls. As I got older, I made lots of friends and they used to enjoy me playing a bit of jazz on the piano at the school assembly – the school liked to have someone playing as people were coming into the hall, and I liked the chance to show off! I wasn’t bullied about it or anything, and I wasn’t shy – I’ve never been shy! I just wasn’t in that set of girls who were popular.”
The singing quickly followed; indeed it was her eventual second husband, bass player Roger Carey, who first got her up to sing on gigs. Asked who her favourite singer was when she was growing up, and Carroll responds immediately: “Vic Damone. He was amazing, a lovely singer. He had it all – the voice, the rhythm and the phrasing – and he did lots with the Count Basie Orchestra. Of the female jazz singers, Sarah Vaughan was my favourite though of course I enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald as well. But I’ve always had diverse tastes: growing up, I used to listen to Laura Nyro – she had a big impact on me when I was about 14 – and I’ve been doing her songs ever since. My husband introduced me to Todd Rundgren’s music, and I really love him too…”
It was only after a very short marriage, from her late teens into her early twenties – “not a pleasant time” – that Carroll really got stuck into performing. “I had been living in York during that period and came back down to Hastings with my one-year-old daughter, and got a residency playing piano at the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne.”
Since then, she has worked in all sorts of bands – both in terms of musical genre and size – and notched up numerous awards, among them two prestigious BBC Jazz Awards in the same year (2005). Although she is constantly adding new strings to her bow, and gaining ever more acclaim, Carroll still has the weekly residency at her local wine bar, Porters, that she has been doing – “when I’m around” – for 26 years, and leads her trio, which features her husband on bass.
Does working with your husband only work because you both have other projects? “I think so! It really does,” laughs Carroll. “We did work together all the time at one point and that got a bit much. We’ve been together 28 and a half years, and we’re just getting there now. It’s always been a work in progress; it’s lovely now.”
In the last decade or so, Carroll has become a regular visitor to Scotland – more in her capacity as a guest teacher than as a star turn, in the popular vocal jazz workshops organised by her friend, the Pathhead-based singer-songwriter Sophie Bancroft.
But this week, it will just be the audience at Wild Cabaret that Carroll has for company. “It’s a nice change to do a solo gig, it’s more spontaneous. Sometimes I chat too much between numbers – it used to be out of nervousness but now it’s just who I am. I know I talk too much, and I know it’s bollocks – but it’s happy bollocks, and it’s true!”
* Liane Carroll performs at Wild Cabaret on Wednesday; details from www.jazzfest.co.uk. Her next Scottish workshop with Sophie Bancroft is the Cromarty Vocal Jazz Workshop, April 1-3 2016. For info, email email@example.com. Her new album Seaside is out in September.
First published in Scotland on Sunday, June 21