Coming up in the shadow of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter realized early on there was no point competing on that terrain, and slowly but surely eked out one of her own. Carter's vocal world has been one of ferocious scat and luxuriously slow ballads, of relentless swing and angular melodic lines unafraid to dip into dissonance. Her sophisticated approach and the tight, shifting arrangements she works out for her backing trio lend themselves to an interpretation of lyrics which is ambiguous, abstract and often ironic. However, this is not most people's idea of what jazz singing should be about, and so after something like 45 years in the business she remains the most controversial of the major jazz singers.
This CD, and live performances over the past couple of years, give the impression that Carter's voice, in terms of control and stamina, may not be what it once was. She sings quietly at slow to medium tempo, sticking to her middle register and taking no chances physically. The result is a soft and dreamy set, pure Betty and highly satisfying, but definitely a change from the days she used to race along at lightning speed as musicians the caliber of John Hicks, Kenny Washington or Lewis Nash worked hard to keep up with her. Whether this is simply a temporary problem remains to be seen.
Carter has been touring with Mark Shim on tenor, and he appears here along with Andre Hayward, trombone, on all the tunes. Some illustrious alumni of the Carter band include pianists Mulgrew Miller, Benny Green, Stephen Scott, Cyrus Chestnut and Jacky Terrasson, bassists Michael Bowie and Ira Coleman, and drummers Washington, Nash, Wynard Harper and Clarence Penn. In other words, she has an eye for talent, and Shim and Hayward are no exception to her rigorous recruiting standards. They have a full, handsome tone on their respective instruments and solo with taste and strength.
Of the seven tunes here, the ringer is Kurt Weill's "Lonely House," with lyrics by Langston Hughes. Carter's attempt at atmospherics and a "poetic" reading are not memorable Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Useless Landscape" is a lovely tune, and the swaying beat is one that Carter handles wellbut she chose, unwisely, to sing it partly in the language in which it was written. You don't have to be fluent to sing a tune in a language not your own, but Carter's attempt at Brazilian Portuguese sounds strained and all wrong. Once she's into the English, though, she's home.
The other songs get typical Carter treatments, somehow managing to be both lush and lean. Unable or unwilling to try for the explosive dynamic contrasts and fiendish tempos that were once her forte, she has streamlined her phrasing, taking her playful way with rhythmic tricks to a calmer level and proving yet again her unwillingness to sing anybody's standard licks but her own. For me the high point of the CD is the title tune, a new one she co-wrote with bassist Curtis Lundy. It's a slow, lyrical scat vehicle, sung in a way that is casual, but casually intense, like a dream, to an accompaniment that starts with a simple cadence and gradually opens up. Before it fades out after almost ten minutes, Carter eases into a couplet from "What's New": "We haven't met since then/Gee, but it's nice to see you again." It's different, surprisingly moving, but wholly unsentimental. That's Betty for you.
Personnel: Betty Carter, vocals; Xavier Davis, piano; Curtis Lundy and/or Matt
Hughes, bass; Andre Hayward, trombone; Mark Shim, tenor sax; Gregory