Jazz-singer Betty Carter can be persuasive with a lyric. On her own "New Blues (You Purrrrr)," a simple line like "I don't understand why you must go away" turns into a three-act drama of confusion, resignation and renewal. Like a sleepy conversation from the wrong side of the bed, it crackles with hurt, the bitter edge laced with a reminder of what's to be lost. More than most singers, Carter plumbs the depths of love's lost labors in ways that suggest she doesn't mind the hurt as long as she can confess in public. As Gary Giddins writes, it's an emotional approach akin to Billie Holliday's, a credo Giddins sums up as: "Love is beautiful but men can't be trusted, so keep swinging."
"Whatever Happened to Love?" is a collection of Carter originals and pop standards, including "What a Little Love Can Do," one of the first songs she recorded. The album, mostly slow or medium-tempo tunes, is best when Carter is backed by her trio, less successful when she works against a rather dull string section under the direction of David Amram.
Carter, of course, remains a brilliantly emotive singer who can conjure up a muted trumpet line, the quavering resonance of a fading bass line or a Johnny Hodges-like breathy betrayal. Most often she likes to play with the hidden meaning of words and the outer reaches of a melody line, turning everything in to herself. Her improvisation- based singing is aggressive, full of no- nonsense sensuality and directness. There's even a Latin spin with "Abre la Puerta," which has Carter at one point echoing Curtis Lundy's taut bass lines. A lot of people think Betty Carter is the greatest jazz singer alive; she keeps feeding them ammunition. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM BETTY CARTER -- Whatever Happened to Love? (Bet-Car MK1004). THE SHOW BETTY CARTER, Friday through Sunday at Blues Alley.