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Singer Betty Carter Still Calling Her Own Tune : Music: A jazz vocalist for four decades, she thrives on new material and performing live.

January 02, 1991|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Betty Carter has been bopping around as a jazz singer for 42 years, but she isn't tired of it.

"Performing live brings something out of you that the recording studio doesn't," she said.

In fact, her new album, "Droppin' Things," on Verve Records, was recorded live at the Bottom Line here on two nights in May. Her last album, "Look What I Got!", won a Grammy Award for best female jazz vocal performance in 1988.

Carter, 60, believes that it is important for a singer to work with new material and not get locked into an unchanging repertoire.

" 'Why Him' is an Alan Jay Lerner song I heard when they were giving him a tribute on TV. I decided to find the lyrics and do the song," she said of her new album. " 'Thirty Years' is a brand-new song. 'Droppin' Things' is very new. 'Open the Door' I recorded before but never like this." She wrote those three.

One of the tracks on the album is "Star Dust," combined with "Memories of You." But, Carter said: "I never sang 'Star Dust' before. I only sang 'Memories' once or twice."

Carter is known for daring improvisations and unusual approaches to songs. "The more you do a song the more you learn about the tune and your concept of the tune. Then I'm free; then I just go any way I want to go and can go with it musically," she said.

But she decided not to play around too much on the new album. "At least you can recognize it," she said. "Most people want to recognize 'Star Dust.' "

Carter is backed up by Marc Cary on piano, Duane Burno on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums. "They're 20, 20 and 23," she said. "My musicians are getting younger and younger. Maybe 15 years ago I had a hard time finding musicians. Now there are a lot of them out there who want to play acoustic instruments and work with me."

They went to Japan in October, returned for some American gigs in November and will probably spend much of next year in Europe. "I love performing. I know how spontaneous it is for me to do my work. Working keeps me alive," Carter said.

A snatch of conversation overheard on the radio led her to rework the lyrics for "Jumps," a song she wrote 12 years ago. Her trio liked "Jumps," so when they went to Europe in March, she worked on more lyrics.

"The music was very abstract," she said. "Once these young kids showed me their enthusiasm for the tune, I said OK, I'm going to develop it. I'd tried it with other musicians; they shrugged their shoulders. I find these kids, younger than my two sons, will try anything.

"I start doodling at the piano in front of my trio. If they say, 'What's that?', I know it's time to develop the tune. I ask them for their input also. It makes them part of the material, which keeps it young and different."

Carter credits Wynton Marsalis with "inspiring a lot of young players to come out and take a chance."

She said young performers are increasingly turning to material that "I thought I never would hear again, old Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie tunes." But Carter doesn't want to keep listening to those re-creations.

"I keep telling them, learn all the songs we played in those days, know all the changes, lock it up in the brain and go for something else. Sit and learn all the standards. They're interesting. It's very educational to learn the blues in all kinds of keys. Learn how to transpose.

"Don't listen too long to one artist. Get in the habit of being creative early, for the rest of your life. You could come up with something different than anyone has ever done. It could happen. There are 88 keys and all kinds of changes to experiment with. A voice can do a lot of wonderful things.

"Only time is going to make young musicians understand what I'm talking about. I wouldn't pay anybody any attention either in my young age. At least they get some information in the very beginning. Some (who) don't take advantage of it instantly will catch it later."

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