James Carter: Gardenias for Lady Day (2004)
While not quite James Carter in Satin, this homage to the music and spirit of Billie Holiday overflows with silky soloing, noirish ballads, and romantic orchestration, with the leader’s own distinctive and identifiable voice prominently featured on no less than six horns. Carter’s arresting baritone saxophone comes up from under on “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” and “More Than You Know,” alternately ascending and descending in languorous musical waves. His tenor on “Gloria” and “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” is characterized in turn by subdued growling, restrained vibrato, R&B swagger, long breathless lines punctuated by short-tempered bleats, and a wah-wah sound, as if a plunger mute were attached to the bell of his horn.
On “Sunset,” with his contrabass clarinet gurgling on the bottom, Carter is his own quartet in a pre-Castro Havana nightclub. On “I’m in a Low Down Groove” he’s a triple-threat wind section, calling and responding to himself.
If Carter is the main attraction on Gardenias for Lady Day , the CD is enriched by the impeccable support of his collaborators. John Hicks delivers his usual elegant, urbane piano, and strings are integrated organically and arranged precisely on all but two tracks. On “Indian Summer,” the violins, violas, and cellos lilt while Carter’s light-hearted soprano sax builds momentum until it turns speedy, reminiscent of his playing with his Django Reinhardt-inspired group. On “More Than You Know,” Miche Braden sings and scats nonchalantly over the Brazilian-shuffle beat.
Unquestionably this CD’s centerpiece, “Strange Fruit” is Billie Holiday’s signature tale of racism and violence perpetrated against African-Americans. Beginning portentously in a lower register (bolstered by a bass trombone and wind machine in an arrangement by Greg Cohen), an anguished tenor signals the equally pained voice of Braden, which transforms images of bulging eyes and burning flesh into cacophonous vocalizing, lacerating tenor screams, and rolling drums. The stark, brutal expressionism of “Strange Fruit” reminds us that Billie’s legacy transcends the polite accompaniment of background party music, and Carter’s flashy and exhilarating interpretations remind us that he is our most exciting and unlimited musician.
This review originally appeared in AllAboutJazz-New York .
Track Listing: 1. Gloria (Byas) - 6:01 2. Sunset (Calloway/Harding/Ricks) - 5:24 3. (I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone (Johnson) - 6:22 4. I'm in a Low Down Groove (Jacobs) - 4:39 5. Strange Fruit (Allan) - 4:20 6. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing (Strayhorn) - 5:54 7. Indian Summer (Herbert V.) - 6:52 8. More Than You Know (Eliscu/Rose/Youmans) - 6:37
Personnel: James Carter - Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax, Contrabass Clarinet, Soprano Sax; John Hicks - Piano; Victor Lewis - Drums; Myung Hi Kim - Violin; Jeanne LeBlanc - Cello; Sandra Park - Violin; Erik Ralske - French Horn; Bruce Wang - Cello; Peter Washington - Bass; Sarah Seiver - Cello; Ann Kim - Violin; Eileen Moon - Cello; Mina Smith - Cello; Sharon Yamada - Violin; Robert Rinehart - Viola; Phil Myers - French Horn; Elizabeth Dyson - Cello; Lisa Kim - Violin; Jeff Nelson - Bass Trombone; Sarah Kim - Violin; Tom Rosenthal - Viola.