Ten years ago, jazz artist Carol Welsman was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), an early form of breast cancer.
“I was out on tour, and I had the biopsy and the doctor said, ‘I’ll only call you if there’s a problem,’” Welsman remembers. “And sure enough, he rings half an hour before I’m going on stage. I have to say it was very eye-opening to have a brush with mortality at a young age, and I appreciate life so very much more.”
Luckily, if DCIS is caught early—as it was in Welsman’s case—it is treatable. She underwent a rigorous six-week session of radiation treatment to reduce the risk of it returning, and celebrated a decade of being cancer-free in October 2015.
“The surgeon, every time I go see him, he says, ‘Get out of my office; you’re a success story,’” she says with a laugh. “I don’t mind being kicked out of an office for something like that.”
But Welsman kept her struggle quiet, not even telling certain members of her family that she had been diagnosed with cancer. It wasn’t until she reached her 10-year milestone last October that she decided to go public with the news.
“A couple of my brothers didn’t even know,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell them because I thought they might just get worried. The word ‘cancer’ is sometimes a difficult word in this business, and now I feel like I really have crossed a milestone here.”
That milestone also occurred around the time Welsman was getting ready to release her 11th studio album, Alone Together, a carefully curated selection of jazz standards and lesser-known tracks ranging from the Charlie Parker solo “Disappointed” to “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “I Didn’t Know About You.” The title itself is meaningful for Welsman, too, as it serves as a nod to her performance style: she has always accompanied herself on piano, so she was essentially alone on stage but together with the music, particularly at the beginning of her career.
“When you sing and play piano you’re able to form a sound and you’re using a special palette of colour, and I was really able to form my signature sound before the band joined in and made it that much better,” she explains. “When you add three or four musicians you suddenly have such a wealth of different colours and styles.”
Being able to accompany oneself on stage allows for a certain amount of control in terms of musical direction, and Welsman’s aforementioned style has explored a gamut ranging from Latin influences to more traditional jazz nuances—the latter of which is prevalent on Alone Together.
“When I spoke with the producer [Corey Allen] he said he really wanted me to concentrate and go back to my jazz roots and do a very traditional jazz album, which is unlike a lot of the previous albums that I’ve done,” Welsman says. “I went back into my repertoire when I was at Berklee College, back when I was 17 or 18 years old. And I literally looked through all of the songs I was given to learn by my piano teacher or that I sang for recitals.
“It was really a question of digging back into that file and finding some signs that were real gems and not over-recorded,” she continues. “Like ‘Disappointed,’ that song, which is a Charlie Parker solo, things that are real jazz things—nobody can say, ‘Oh, this is from a show on Broadway.’ This is a saxophone solo, somebody put lyrics to it and nobody’s ever sung it.”
Once she had rediscovered some of these old favourites, Welsman set to work interpreting them in different ways, such as adding new time signatures to the pieces, or artistic flourishes on the piano.
“Usually the lyrics of the songs suggest a lot to me,” she explains. “You actually don’t have to go very far to find some really great ideas that turn into colours in the music.”