Young lion saxophonist Carter presents his tribute to Billie Holiday...
Peter Marsh 2004
The jazz tribute album is a funny thing. It can either be a revisionist reinterpretation (think of Paul Motian's Bill Evans homage or Anthony Braxton's reconfiguring of Charlie Parker) or, more often, a respectful, low risk enterprise. It's quite a handy tool for those players who'd like to see themselves as part of the same tradition (this kind of stuff's important to American jazzers) or simply for those who may have temporarily run out of ideas.
Billie Holiday's been the subject of a few tribute albums of varying quality (step forward, Diana Ross), and on the face of it this album by the undeniably gifted saxophonist James Carter looks a grim prospect. Taking tunes associated with the singer and placing them alongside songs she didn't sing but might have liked to doesn't really hold together as a concept either.
In fact, this album is as much about the Ellingtonian tradition and players like Don Byas, Harry Carney or Johnny Hodges as it is about Ms Holiday, though filtered through a seductive combination of Carter's kaleidoscopic talent and Greg Cohens' imaginative arrangements. It's best to think of this as an album of standards, and a bloody good one at that.
This is the first time Carter's recorded with strings. It's still an area that's treated with indifference in the jazz mainstream, most arrangers seeming content to retread the kind of syrupy confections trotted out by Nelson Riddle. Cohen (also bassist with John Zorn and others) isn't scared of being lush, but there's a rhythmic punch and a faint whiff of exotica to his and Cassius Richmond's arrangements that transcends the commonplace.
Though Miche Braden turns up on a few tracks to add her warm, agile vocals to proceedings (more Betty Carter or Cassandra Wilson than Billie),unsuprisingly it's Carter's voice that dominates. He's a brash, domineering presence, though the obvious flash of earlier outings seems tempered by a gruff romanticism; the kind of 'tough but tender' approach of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins. Whether handling tenor, soprano or baritone, Carter seems to reference almost every point in saxophonic history simultaneously. He also gets into more esoteric horns (bass clarinet and the mysterious F mezzo sax) and even manages to trade licks with himself on occasion.
It takes guts to cover "Strange Fruit". Carter's solution is to take the rug out from under the listener with an overwhelming free jazz blast (worthy of Pharoah Sanders or Peter Brotzmann) that arrives like a rogue asteroid halfway through, blasting the whole thing to smithereens with posessed fury. It shouldn't work, but it does. A valuable and quietly inventive record from a talent still worth watching.