Betty Carter - vocals; John Hicks - piano; Curtis Lundy - bass; Kenny Washington - drums
A force of nature in vocal jazz, Betty Carter could hold her on with any instrumentalist on the bandstand when it came to improvising. A hard taskmaster as a bandleader, she was particularly strict with the young drummers and bass players who passed through her band over the years, due to her own impeccable sense of time and rhythmic daring. And while she could scat a blue streak with the facility of any horn player, Carter was also known for her elongated phrasing over molasses slow tempos (a particularly difficult assignment for young drummers) and her wildly impressionistic interpretations of tunes that had her laying way back behind the beat and inventing new cadences for familiar lyrics. For this 1979 set at the Great American Music Hall, the adventurous, eminently hip Ms. Carter commanded the stage, accompanied by pianist John Hicks, bassist Curtis Lundy and drummer Kenny Washington.
The stellar trio kicks off the GAMH proceedings with an unnamed uptempo swinger before heading into a faithful rendition of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" (from his 1957 masterpiece Blue Train) which is highlighted by a whirlwind drum solo that showcases Washington's incredible melodic penchant on the kit (he even quotes the melody of this hard bop staple note for note on his tom toms). Carter joins the trio on an idiosyncratic reading of the standard "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," bringing a deconstructionist sensibility to that buoyant pop tune from the mid '50s. Her phrasing on this ballad is typically languid as each word drips slowly from her lips in dramatic fashion. Her almost dadaesque approach to scatting is unveiled on a sprightly mid-tempo swing version of the Rodgers & Hart ditty, "I Could Write a Book." Carter's creative phrasing and carefree scat abandon enlivens a version of Carlos Garnett's buoyant "Caribbean Sun."
Her whispery intro sets a delicate tone for the torch song "I Was Telling Him About You," which is underscored by Washington's sensitive brushwork and Hicks' rhapsodic piano. Carter's version (which she documented on her 1976 Roulette gem, Now It's My Turn) is far more intimate, confessional and positively visceral than previously recorded renditions of the tune by Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson. Her joyfully swinging original, "Tight," with its intricate stop-time statements by the band, features a marvelous solo by Hicks. Carter then creatively strings together a medley of popular standards that opens with a graceful waltz-time arrangement of "Just Friends" then segues to a swinging 4/4 "I Should Care" and concludes with a relaxed, swinging rendition of the romantic "Star Eyes."
She playfully romps through Cole Porter's scathing indictment on romance, "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love (They Just Like To Kick It Around)," with great relish (and tongue planted firmly in cheek). Then with Washington again underscoring on brushes, she commits to one of those luxurious slow tempos on "This is Always," a Warren-Mack love song which had been previously recorded in memorable versions by Chet Baker, Irene Kral and Frank Sinatra. "Fake" is another example of Carter's considerable songwriting skills and particularly her penchant for clever lyrics. Lundy is the featured soloist on that waltz-time ditty, as he engages in some spirited call-and-response with Betty's scatting. Her feisty take on the Tin Pan alley tune "Do Something" swings with bebop fervor, then she returns to luxurious downtempo mode on her own heartfelt, revealing ballad "I Think I Got It Now." Hicks drives a bristling, Coltrane-inspired take on "My Favorite Things," then they settle into a buoyant bossa nova groove on Carter's appealing "Open the Door," which she confesses to the audience how she wants to score a crossover hit with. Carter closes her superb GAMH performance by putting a blazing bebop spin on an old-time Tin Pan Alley number from the 1920s, "By the Bend in the River," on which she unleashes her wildest scat abandon of the set with her trio swinging in high gear.
Born Lillie Mae Jones on May 16, 1929, a native of Flint, Michigan, she grew up in Detroit, where she studied piano and won a local talent contest. By age 16, she had sat in with bebop icon Charlie Parker when he came through town. It was Lionel Hampton who discovered her in the late 1940s and gave her the nickname Betty Bebop for her unique scatting abilities. Carter recorded during the 1950s with the Ray Bryant Trio and in 1958 released her solo debut, Out There, on the Peacock label. Her series of duets with Ray Charles in 1961 (including their R&B hit, "Baby, It's Cold Outside") brought her greater visibility. She subsequently recorded for various labels through the '60s before forming her own Bet-Car label in 1970. Considered a 'musicians' musician' and a bit of a cult attraction among New York hipsters, Carter appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in its first groundbreaking season. Her live double album, The Audience with Betty Carter, received wide acclaim in 1980. She was signed to Verve Records in 1987 and won a Grammy Award the following year for her album Look What I Got! In 1994, she performed at the White House and that year was also the subject of a short film entitled Betty Carter: New All the Time. In 1997, she received a National Medal of Arts Award from President Bill Clinton and remained active in jazz until her death at age 69 from pancreatic cancer on September 26, 1998. (Bill Milkowski)