On Aug. 8, the protean musician Benny Carter would have been 100 years old. Apparently, he intended to be around for that day but fell short by five years. The Hollywood Bowl nevertheless went ahead with a centennial tribute, which fortuitously happened to fall on a Wednesday night, the traditional jazz night here. The lineup was star-studded and high-minded, and the musicmaking was often superb.
Carter remains an enigma to the general public; his abilities and range were so vast, extending over such an awe-inspiring span of time, that it is difficult to get a bead on exactly where his place in jazz is. Aside from biographer Ed Berger’s cogent summary of Carter’s career in the printed program and a too-little-too-late video montage near the end, this scattershot concert barely even tried.
Carter was still going strong at his 90th birthday party at the Bowl in 1997, playing alto sax brilliantly with amazing freshness. One wonders whether a tape from that concert exists — if so, it should have been played — but lacking that, a new release by the Mel Martin/Benny Carter Quintet live at Yoshi’s from 1994 (Jazzed Media) proves how durable he remained in the 1990s.
Quincy Jones emceed virtually the entire concert, his words melting like honey, spinning fascinating anecdotes left and right, yet never quite managing to put Carter’s career into focus. But we did have the rare, welcome, latter-day opportunity of watching Q lead a big band, the crack Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, in his early, robust “Stockholm Suite.”
Many songs and arrangements — no doubt by Carter — went unidentified in the first half, although that gap was rectified in the second half. This is important, for Carter’s contributions to the Great American Songbook are not as well publicized as others. “When Lights Are Low” — probably his most famous tune — was name-checked, and it received a confident, swinging, beautifully scatted performance from one of Carter’s last and most talented protegees, Roberta Gambarini.
The CHJO and Carter’s last piano trio alternated as expert anchors for almost all of the program. Martin himself was present, playing fluid tenor and soprano saxes and participating in a sax quintet that precisely performed two excerpts from Carter’s “Further Dimensions” album. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove was in a mostly subdued mood in most of his solos; guitarist Russell Malone made liquid unaccompanied work of “All About You”; James Moody continues to create subtle, swinging tenor bop lines at 82. Jeff Clayton’s swooping sounds on alto sax were actually closer in spirit to those of another jazz alto titan whose own centennial was observed two weeks ago, Johnny Hodges.
The grand finale, a selection from an album that Carter wrote for Count Basie’s band, “Kansas City Suite,” found the CHJO doing an uncanny impression of the Basie sound via Carter’s hand. He was a consummate craftsman, a gentleman supreme to all who knew him — yet Carter’s versatility and adaptability may explain why his image isn’t as clear to us as those of other major jazzmen of his stature.