Benny Carter's opening set at the Loa Club Thursday night was an out-and-out celebration of life and music--a glowing testimony to the sometimes forgotten fact that a career devoted to jazz can be long-lived and filled with joy.
Carter's 80th birthday celebration last week was clearly only the acknowledgement of a number, since the years have taken away none of the velocity from his high, hard fast ball. His Thursday-night program was ample evidence of the fact that Carter--like Satchel Paige and, for that matter, Pablo Picasso and Pablo Casals--continues to find energetic new variations of creativity in the themes that have been his life's work.
The five pieces in his first set were all standards--songs the alto saxophonist/trumpeter/composer/arranger has been playing and/or scoring for half his lifetime or more. Yet each was examined, probed, elaborated upon and expanded in a fashion which, even in its most casual moments, was filled with the creative density that Andre Gide once identified as the foundation of all great art.
"Green Dolphin Street," the opening selection, was typical. It took all of 16 bars for Carter to get the reed on his alto saxophone properly moistened and his ear attuned to the acoustics of the room--then it was off to the races in an improvisation overflowing with disjointed rhythm accents, complex harmonic filigrees and turned-around melodic phrasing.
His ballad work on "Lover Man" was warm, lyrical and romantic, but never sentimental or saccharine. Carter has the great gift of perceiving an improvisation as a kind of structured etude rather than a serial flow of spontaneous melody, and his solo was rich with unexpected internal connections.
Only Carter's trumpet playing--a discipline he has given less attention to in recent years--seemed weathered by time. "Body and Soul," not the easiest of chord charts for an improviser, precipitated a solo of crystalline harmonic intensity, but Carter's trumpet chops clearly were not up to the demands of his musical imagination.
It was, nevertheless, an evening to cherish, and one given even greater pleasure by the clear evidence that Benny Carter's troisieme age in jazz is just beginning.
He was backed by the sterling rhythm trio of Gene Harris on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums.