The American Jazz Orchestra, which boasts some of the finest musicians in the country, staged a concert in New York last February celebrating the works of Benny Carter. For a repertory band "powered by the conviction that the classics of jazz stand up," as its artistic director Gary Giddins puts it, an evening devoted to Carter's music must have seemed an obvious choice.
After all, probably no musician better understands the evolution and inner workings of big band jazz than Carter, and certainly none has been more actively involved in every facet of the music over the past 60 years. Since first submitting scores for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra in the late '20s, Carter has carved out a singular niche in jazz. He's universally respected, not just as a pioneering arranger and alto saxophonist but also as a composer, band leader and multi-instrumentalist. At 80, he remains vital and creative, a fact made resoundingly clear on the AJO's premiere recording, "Benny Carter -- Central City Sketches" (Musicmasters CIJD 60126X).
The CD takes its name from a six-part suite Carter devised especially for the AJO and this recording. Richly varied, it's full of contrasting strains of impressionistic musings and vibrant swing, and serves as the CD's sumptuously orchestrated centerpiece. The suite opens, fittingly enough, with Carter in the lead role, playing a bluesy, relaxed trumpet. He's strolling through the city, as it were, his pace slow and easy, attuned to the subtle play of drummer Mel Lewis and pianist Dick Katz.
Eventually the suite blossoms into myriad forms: a sunny confluence of brass and reeds on "Hello"; a balletic duet for flute (Lew Tabackin) and piano (Katz) on "People, People"; unflappable swing on "Promenade"; and, best of all, the radiant beauty of one of Carter's most haunting themes, "Remember," a melody lovingly nurtured by both Carter (on alto sax) and trumpeter Marvin Stamm.
As rewarding as it is, one hesitates to single out the suite as the CD's highlight. With a running time of almost 72 minutes, there's a lot of music here, all of it good and most of it splendid. Included are some big-band arrangements of pieces Carter had originally scored for smaller groups. Among these are two versions of "Doozy." Despite structural differences, each benefits from spirited solos -- in one instance by Tabackin and fellow tenor saxophonist Loren Schoenberg; in the other by trumpeter John Eckert, trombonist Jimmy Knepper and Carter himself, again on alto.
Another delight, and the first piece to feature Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis, who serves as the AJO's musical director, is Carter's enduring ballad "When the Lights Are Low." The combination of Lewis' pensive touch and Carter's luminous reeds creates an unstintingly romantic mood, which is later recaptured (this time sans Lewis) on the poignant ballad "Souvenir."
As someone who is obviously partial to the saxophone, it's not surprising that Carter favors the reeds in his arrangements. The reed ensembles that bolster "Easy Money" (which Carter originally wrote for Count Basie), "Lonesome Nights" (which also provides a wonderful showcase for Lewis) and the rousing "Symphony in Riffs" are marvelous harmonic creations, rich in color and nuance, and there are numerous other examples as well.
Next to the reeds, the rhythm section stands out on this album. Most of the credit belongs to drummer Mel Lewis, a big band leader in his own right. Working alongside bassist Ron Carter and guitarist Remo Palmier, Lewis imparts an easy, unencumbered beat to each of these performances. Particularly impressive is his sensitive use of the cymbals, which gives the tunes not only a crisp rhythm but a glinting texture as well.
'Benny Carter Meets Oscar Peterson'
Compared with "Central City Sketches," "Benny Carter Meets Oscar Peterson" (Pablo 2310-926) is a mere diversion, but it's a pleasant diversion nonetheless. The album, an off-the-cuff studio session, reunites Carter with Peterson and consists almost entirely of familiar pop tunes. For the most part, the arrangements are standard fare: The theme gives way to breaks by all of the soloists, who in this case include guitarist Joe Pass, and then back to the theme. All the while, Peterson's trio mates -- drummer Martin Drew and bassist Dave Young -- maintain a steady, agreeable pace.
It's a simple yet charming collaboration, utterly relaxed, with Carter's alto waxing both warm ("Sweet Lorraine") and whimsical ("Baubles, Bangles and Beads"). At times, he seems to have had a calming effect on the entire ensemble. Even Peterson's splashy choruses on "Baubles" conform to a bluesy line, a path later pursued by Pass as well. Still, it's Carter who shines the brightest, unfurling long, flowing, singing phrases and always displaying a big, attractive tone. While the mood changes somewhat -- the focus shifting from ballads to a brisk take of "Whisperin' " to the album's brash finale, "Some Kind of Blues" -- Carter's playing is consistently and delightfully true to form.