Rifftides reader Martin Fritter writes,
I’ve just discovered Benny Carter’s alto playing, which seems of absolutely the highest caliber. Could you recommend some basic discs?
With pleasure. This is the best assignment I’ve had in weeks. I envy anyone’s hearing Carter for the first time. He’s one of the great joys of jazz listening—and there is so much of him in so many of his aspects; saxophonist, clarinetist, trumpeter, arranger, composer, leader. There are hundreds of Carter recordings. Even the Carter website offers only a selected discography. All I can give you are a few highlights. Let’s include Sax ala Carter, which I discussed last month in this posting. He recorded that in 1960.
Then, let’s go back thirty-one years before that, to 1929, when Carter was twenty-two years old and playing in a great band with a silly name, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. He has a solo on “I’d Love It” that shows not only his early mastery of the alto saxophone, but also the close attention he had paid to Louis Armstrong’s phrasing. It comes a minute into the real audio clip of the entire recording. You will find it on this page of the Red Hot Jazz website. Scroll down and click on “I’d Love It.” You will also hear solos by Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and the wonderful trombonist Claude Jones.
Another Bluebird collection, All Of Me, has thirteen tracks of Carter’s early 1940s big band. The title number has his magnificent scoring for saxophones and a prime example of his clarinet, which he later dropped from his arsenal. The album also has Carter as a sidemen in five groups from 1934 to 1947, playing a beautifully formed trumpet solo with Willie Bryant’s band on “The Sheik of Araby”, alto sax with an Artie Shaw all-star combo plus strings, and guesting with a band of young boppers led by tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. This bountiful collection also presents four of the pieces he co-composed and orchestrated for the late-fifties television series M Squad, with a rare serving of Carter on soprano sax.
The Radio Years 1939-1946 has twenty well-recorded air checks of three editions of Carter’s big band. The 1943 band included several important figures in the swing-to-bop transition, among them J.J. Johnson, Freddy Webster and Curly Russell. In 1946, Miles Davis was in the Carter trumpet section, but he has no identifiable solos here. Carter’s alto solo on “I Can’t Get Started” is one of the loveliest melody statements he, or anyone, ever played.
One of the most astonishing sessions Carter was involved in was someone else’s. In 1939, Vibraharpist Lionel Hampton put together an ad hoc recording band with three of the four reigning tenor sax giants, Chu Berry, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins (only Lester Young was absent); Carter on alto; young Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet; and a rhythm section of Hampton, pianist Clyde Hart, guitarist Charlie Christian, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Cozy Cole. They recorded a song Carter had written in England three years earlier, “When Lights Are Low.” It became his most famous composition. The alternate take is the only track with Carter in the rare Hampton CD, The Jumpin’ Jive, which the Rifftides staff managed to track down (so to speak) in a sub-basement of the Amazon website.
In the 1950s, Carter was heavily committed to arranging and scoring work in the Hollywood studios, but he found time to record for Norman Granz’s labels. His sessions with Oscar Peterson’s Trio were notably successful. One of his enduring masterpieces came in 1958 in the Jazz Giant album for the Contemporary label. It reunited him with Ben Webster and brought in west coast luminaries Jimmy Rowles, Andre Previn, Frank Rosolino, Barney Kessel, Leroy Vinnegar and Shelly Manne. It is one of the few jazz albums by anyone that is an unqualified success from its first note to the last. I’ve always thought of the 1962 Swingville CD Benny, Ben & Barney, which I have always thought of as a sort of sequel to Jazz Giant. Webster is on board again, with the Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard, trumpeter Shorty Sherock, Rowles, Vinnegar, guitarist Dave Barbour and drummer Mel Lewis. It has a splendid version of “When Lights Are Low” and a delicious long performance called “You Can’t Tell The Difference When The Sun Goes Down Blues.”
Finally: One of the great jazz albums of any era, Further Definitions, for which Carter assembled three other great saxophonists—Coleman Hawkins, Phil Woods and Charlie Rouse—and a perfect rhythm section of pianist Dick Katz, bassist Jimmy Garrison, guitarist John Collins and drummer Jo Jones. The latest CD reissue pairs Further Definitions with Carter’s 1966 followup, Additions to Further Definitions, which is almost, but not quite, as good. Hardly anything is.
From there, you’re on your own. Carter continued to record through the sixties, seventies, eighties and much of the nineties. He made a quintet album with Phil Woods, the other member of a mutual admiration society, in 1996, when Carter was eighty-nine years old. He died in 2003, just short of his ninety-sixth birthday, one of the most revered figures in American music.