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ALBUM REVIEW / JAZZ : 'Carter' Only Captures Part of His Best : BENNY CARTER, "Best of Benny Carter" Music Masters *** 1/2

August 08, 1995|BILL KOHLHAASE

The title of this compilation deserves an asterisk. Surely no single CD could harbor all the best of a musician with a career as long and as distinguished as Benny Carter's, and this one doesn't try. Instead, it highlights the most recent years of Carter's career, those since his 80th birthday.

But that doesn't mean "Best Of" captures an icon in his twilight days. Carter's alto work is still vital and filled with characteristic ease and invention. There's a child-like playfulness to his improvisations, which develop with the inevitability of a storybook. He bounces easily through melodies and displays characteristic diplomacy in group sessions. In short, he demonstrates the same gentlemanly qualities and creative vision that earned him a reputation long before many of us were born.

Carter's skill as composer-arranger is also chronicled here, with combo pieces ("Another Time, Another Place"), orchestral compositions (the Grammy-winning "Sugar Hill Slow Drag") and sweet sax-section arranging, represented by Johnny Green's ballad "Out of Nowhere," with saxophonists Herb Geller, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess and baritonist Joe Temperley joining Carter's alto.

Other jazz notables making appearances on the disc include trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Harry (Sweets) Edison and Clark Terry, pianists Hank Jones, Roland Hanna and Kenny Barron, bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Louie Bellson. But the spotlight is squarely on Carter and his continually enlightening play. He's uncharacteristically quirky on "I'm Beginning to See the Light," sliding upward into pitch while making passing references to composer Johnny Hodges. He rambles at good speed through "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" while maintaining a relaxed, no-sweat feel. And his work on the well-worn "Lover Man" is a confident remake that uncovers fresh pathos without compromising his usual sophisticated style. "Best Of" is a timely look at a musician who's been at his peak for some 60 years.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).

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