The New Orleans-based vocalist releases her take on America's jazz standards.

carsie blanton photo

It’s not clear that the world needed another female vocalist singing jazz standards, and it’s really unclear that New Orleans was underserved in that department. That didn’t stop Carsie Blanton, though. The singer/songwriter by trade will play a CD-release party Sunday night at Cafe Istanbul in honor of Not Old, Not New, singing songs by the masters of the Great American Songbook.

“I love singing this stuff,” she says, and her interest comes from an affection for the songs and how well they’re constructed. “There are a lot of bad songs our there, and I think we’re having a bit of a problem understanding what a good song is,” Blanton says. “We have a lot of songs that are passing the bar that are not well crafted. I have a lot of interest in drawing attention to a well-written song.” In general, she shied away from better known songs, choosing Duke Ellington’s “Azalea” instead of “Take the A Train,” and Cole Porter’s “Laziest Gal in Town” over one of his better-known classics. 

In the case of those songs and many on the album, the melodies are big parts of their appeal, melodies that “go a lot of interesting places without losing their accessibility,” Blanton says. But they’re also tied to interesting thoughts that are smartly expressed. In “Laziest Gal in Town,” that melody is tied to inventive wordplay as Porter rhymes “achin’,” “bacon” and “forsaken” in one verse that’s obviously clever but with a real emotional undercurrent. “I  want people to hear these songs and think to themselves, Wow, this song says something that’s really clear and direct and yet not contrived.

For Blanton, the joy of singing these songs is thinking about rhythm, tone, inflection and phrasing, and how to use them to convey a thought worth singing. “There are infinite options,” she says. “What I try to do with these songs is sing them in a way that reveals the depth of meaning in the lyrics. Me and the players and the melody are all conspiring to get the point of the song across to the listener.”

Blanton becomes animated when talking about singing. She’s self-taught, so her vocal truths are largely those of an autodidact, and she shares them with the enthusiasm of someone who is excited by her discoveries. Her background is in rock and pop music, and she only moved from Philadelphia to New Orleans two years ago. Blanton doesn’t plan to make this music her future, and she approaches the songs without any obvious reverence for the jazz canary image. Instead, she sings logically. Any lushness comes from her personality or the band - David Torkanowsky, Jason Marsalis, and Neal Caine. They play exactly what the songs need and not a note more or less, letting Blanton and the songs be the stars.

Blanton spent some time going to gigs around town trying to decide who should be in the band and had a number of conversations before she met Torkanowsky. When she explained that her models for the album were Chet Baker SingsLouis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson and the Nat King Cole trio recordings, he was in. “They weren’t heavy on improvisation,” Blanton says, explaining her choices. “Those records were all about showcasing the song. You had some of the best players of all time, but they were very restrained to get the song across to an audience.” Torkanowsky assembled the band with that idea in mind and connected Blanton with producer John Porter, who also embraced the idea. Torkanowsky played piano on everything on the album but “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” - easily the best known song of the set, which Blanton sang accompanied only by Ellis Marsalis.

She has already started touring Not Old, Not New and is booked into August, which will take her to Australia for some dates. Working on the album didn’t prompt her to write anything that could be mistaken for a jazz or swing standard, but it did spark her creativity. “I have the whole next record written as a result of working on this one,” Blanton says.