Every time Barbara Carroll takes the stage to start a set, her longtime bass player Jay Leonhart watches her intently.
"She gets on the stage and, all of a sudden, the moment, what's going on in the audience, what's going on with her, it just sort of comes," Leonhart says. "She'll sit at the piano, and that little pause that sometimes piano players like to take before they play ... she really uses that. It's like she's summoning up something from inside her to tell her, 'Okay, where are we going?' And it always tells her very clearly what to do."
Now 86, Carroll has been summoning those inside impulses for a long time — since she was a girl in Worcester, Mass. She was studying classical piano when she heard Nat King Cole on the radio.
"That was it: It was as if a light went on in my head and I knew that's what I wanted to do," Carroll recalls. "But, nevertheless, I continued studying classical music for about 10 years. And I'm glad I did, because that gives you the technical ability to play whatever it is you are able to create. Whatever is in your head, you have to have the facility to do it."
Carroll broke into jazz in the late 1940s, a time when women had a hard time gaining acceptance in that world. Still, she secured a gig at the Downbeat Club, opposite Dizzy Gillespie's big band, which launched her career. Save for a decade off to raise her daughter, Carroll has been a regular on the New York jazz scene ever since.
"She has fingers of steel. She can play as well now as she could in anytime in her career, and as fast and as intensely," says Stephen Holden, a critic at The New York Times. Holden says Carroll's style is distinctive because of her classical background.
"But it's still very, very jazzy," Holden adds. "She's as likely to interpret Bach into something as Charlie Parker into something."
While she's primarily known as a pianist, Carroll sings from time to time. On the title track of her newest album, Carroll speak-sings Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?"
"I really don't consider myself a singer as such," Carroll says. "I would like to consider myself a storyteller. That's the way we, who don't have a lot of voice, get around it — we call ourselves storytellers! And if we can't sustain a note successfully, that's because we're just telling a story."
"Right now, she's at her peak musically," says Leonhart. "And I suspect she's gonna go on for quite a while. We'll be talking about her, four years from now, as the most amazing 90-year-old pianist ever."
At 86, Carroll says one thing she doesn't do is practice every day. And she doesn't rehearse her band, either.
"There is no discussion, no rehearsal — not at all," she says. "Either it happens or it doesn't happen, you know?"