OK, here's fair warning. Benny Carter is making an extremely rare appearance at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. Miss him, and you'll miss one of the great opportunities to experience the heart and soul of jazz music.
Let's put that in context. At 87, Carter is one of the grand old men of jazz. In the early 1930s--when Charlie Parker was barely a teen-ager--Carter and Johnny Hodges laid down the archetypal definitions of excellence for the jazz alto saxophone. Oh, and he played first-rate trumpet, as well.
None of this would have much more than historical significance if Carter were in his musical dotage. But the performance he delivered in his opening set Thursday night before an enthusiastic, overflow crowd needed no explanations or qualifiers. Very simply, Carter played a deliciously appealing collection of tunes with the elegant style of a musical master.
The material was mostly familiar stuff--"Misty," "Take the 'A' Train"--along with an original, "Another Time, Another Place." With Carter, however, tunes are the starting points for spontaneous composition. Like the mature Picasso, he has a magisterial perspective that allows him to seek out the creative center of his work, while still retaining the skills with which to communicate his vision.
Each of Carter's improvisations was a study in musical constructionism. Taking bits and pieces of melody, he turned them around, repeating fragments here, altering them there, and gradually assembling them into colorful variants on the original songs. Although his tone was a bit pinched in places, and he occasionally had to squeeze out some of the higher harmonics, his total performance was superb, a unique and special treat.
Carter was accompanied by the very able team of Larry Nash, piano; Larance Marable, drums, and Larry Gales, bass. Nash produced an especially vigorous flow of chords, and Marable--as always--was strong and subtle. In addition to providing a firm, walking rhythm foundation, Gales also stepped forward for an engaging, bowed bass feature on "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."
* The Benny Carter Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. (213) 466-2210. Carter plays two sets each night, at 9 and 11, through Sunday. $17 cover for the early show, $15 for the late show, with two-drink minimum.