Though Benny Carter would not officially turn 90 years young until two days later, his birthday bash at the Bowl Wednesday was something that the presenters of his actual birthday concert in Oslo, Norway, would be hard pressed to match. It was a panorama of veterans, stars and comers in all kinds of configurations, with performances that often reached exciting peaks, all smoothly tied together by the informative charm of emcee Quincy Jones. Everyone recognizes Benny Carter as one of jazz's giants, although his contribution is more difficult to pin down precisely than, say, those of pioneers like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman or Charlie Parker. Certainly his most indelible trademark has been his distinctively eloquent alto sax sound and style --- and now, perhaps he might also be best remembered for his amazing durability. It's hard to think of another saxophonist who remained a major active figure at 80, let alone 90 --- and hearing the spry Carter slithering fluidly and inventively all around the tune of "Misty" or trading licks on an equal footing with the formidably biting Phil Woods reminds us that indeed, he is still a monster of a player.
Yet there is far more to Carter’s legacy than just a saxophone — and as if to emphasize the point, the concert was anchored by two contrasting groups. One was the top-notch, dynamically sensitive Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, spiked with savvy veterans such as plunger-mute wizard Snooky Young, capable of joyous, airtight swing on numbers like “Easy Money,” “I Be Serious About Dem Blues,” and the world premiere of John Clayton’s splendidly robust 16-minute “Maestro: The Benny Carter Suite.” Components of the big band also supported some marvelously smooth quadruple-sax-led charts from Carter’s revered “Further Definitions” album, as well as a multisax jam on “One O’Clock Jump.”The other anchor was a small combo driven by the heavyweight rhythm section of pianist Gerald Wiggins, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Roy McCurdy, featuring guitarist Kenny Burrell leaning right into the swinging groove of “When Lights Are Low,” trombonist Al Grey’s equally adroit plunger-mute tricks, and Jimmy Heath’s direct, blunt tone on tenor. Elsewhere, Diana Krall injected some glamour into the evening with a rendition of a clever new tribute song “Benny” — although her voice clung cautiously and tightly to the lines of the big band — and Burrell brought out some soulful depths in trumpeter Nicholas Payton in a duet. Buddy Collette, who turned 76 on this date, shared birthday honors, an equally sweet-toned sax style, and the same initials with jazz’s newest nonagenarian.