When Betty Carter pays tribute to Sarah Vaughan at Baird Auditorium tomorrow night, she'll be acknowledging not only Vaughan's art and legacy but also the great void created by her recent death. Ironically, Vaughan's passing came at a time of renewed interest in female jazz singers, including some who've previously been snubbed by major labels.
Carter, in fact, ran her own label until she was signed to Polygram/Verve a few years ago. Her latest album, "Droppin' Things" (Verve), was mostly recorded live at the Bottom Line in New York last May. Guest trumpeter Freddie Hubbard leads an impressive cast of musicians, all of whom get a chance to stretch out in this relaxed setting, but the album opens with just Carter and a trio in the studio performing "30 Years." A Carter original, the song is something of an old wife's tale, if you will, examining the demise of a 30-year marriage after her husband has opted for a younger woman. As she pleads for him to stay, Carter probably won't win any feminist fans with her performance, but it's an unusually poignant portrayal just the same -- full of sorrow and wrenchingly real.
Nothing else on the album matches it for sheer emotion, though Carter's pensive reading of the medley "Stardust/Memories of You," deftly shaded by pianist Geri Allen, allows the floating hornlike nature of her voice to shine in a similarly quiet setting. Indeed, when Carter scoops up the second syllable in the word "refrain" or allows her alto to drop precipitously as she introduces the second part of the medley, it's almost impossible not to think of a gifted saxophonist at work.
Another highlight finds the singer gently reprising "Why Him," the Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner musing on the mysteries of sexual attraction. At times Carter plays it for laughs, the audience egging her on, but she never loses sight of the lyrics' blissfully lovestruck tone. Elsewhere, Carter's quixotic flights are always spirited (though her intonation occasionally gets wobbly), and several arrangements are vigorously punctuated by Hubbard's clarion trumpet and Craig Handy's soulful tenor sax.
Abbey Lincoln: 'The World Is Falling Down'
Believe it or not, Abbey Lincoln's "The World Is Falling Down" (Verve) is her first American release in more than 20 years and her first for a major label. Fortunately, Lincoln has frequently recorded in Europe and Japan in the interim, often singing her own lyrics while surrounded by first-rate musicians.
Even so, the talent assembled for the new album is especially noteworthy: trumpeter Clark Terry, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Billy Higgins and pianist Alain Jean-Marie. The arrangements are lean but colorful, and though Lincoln's voice is considerably lower than it once was, it has retained such a distinctly tart edge that it melds perfectly with the horns on the album's title track. It's a song that delivers an uncharacteristically gloomy message, but the combination of its leisurely rhythms, gospel overtones and piquant horns -- a combination, by the way, highly reminiscent of Lester Bowie's "avant-pop" arrangements -- ultimately imbues the melody with at least a little of the optimism found elsewhere on the album.
As a lyricist, Lincoln is as much a romanticist as a realist, and there are glimpses of both here. Yet the most poetic and thoughtful lyrics by far are the ones she composed for a pair of lovely, insinuating melodies by Haden ("First Song") and Thad Jones ("When Love Was You and Me"). Because Lincoln renders them with such tender emotion, and because her band mates subtly enhance the bittersweet mood, those songs are also responsible for the album's most affecting moments.
Ernestine Anderson: 'Boogie Down'
Subtlety, by contrast, has never been Ernestine Anderson's forte. With her brassy alto voice, she's more comfortable belting a song than crooning it, though she gets a chance to do both on her latest album, "Boogie Down" (Concord), featuring the 18-piece Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. While Anderson certainly has the pipes to cut it as a big band singer, the album gets off to an inauspicious start by trying to recast the title track, a pop-funk hit for Al Jarreau, in the Count Basie mold. The tune is hardly worth the effort.
Not surprisingly, Anderson fares much better when she has a substantial lyric to sing and arranger John Clayton exploits the band's considerable resources. For example, Sammy Cahn's "Day by Day" swings mightily, the horns shouting over a briskly churning rhythm, and on the mid-tempo "Nothing Changes," Anderson's lusty alto is vividly framed by the brass and reeds. The slower pieces, however, are uneven. Some lack the intimacy Anderson created with, say, pianist George Shearing in the past, while others, including the Rodgers and Hart reverie "Wait Till You See Him," are worth hearing for the gorgeous orchestrations alone.