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Jazz Review

Benny Carter, Still a Vital Player at 90

March 20, 1998|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alto saxophonist Benny Carter, at 90, is a venerable jazz icon. Yet his performance Wednesday night in the opening set of a five-night run at Catalina Bar & Grill had an immediacy and an aliveness that transcended historical associations.

The only concession Carter has made to age has been the abandonment of his trumpet playing. In his early years he was, remarkably, a talented performer on both instruments--a not-at-all common double.

But the quality of his alto saxophone work continues to be first-rate. Equally important, his is an utterly original style. His soloing on standards such as "Green Dolphin Street," "Lover Man" and several originals was brisk and articulate, filled with the off-the-beat syncopated lines that have always characterized his playing. His up-tempos were filled with a driving rhythmic urgency. On ballads, he occasionally slipped in sliding, Johnny Hodges-like glissandi.

What, in fact, became apparent in Carter's playing was the extent to which, in the 1930s, his work served as a kind of bridge between the then-dominant, lush Hodges style, and the more spare, timbrally pointed playing of Charlie Parker and the bop saxophonists of the '40s.

Carter wasn't pondering history in his Catalina set, however, clearly preferring to stay in the present with both his playing and his surroundings. Elegant in jacket and tie, his cheerful countenance graced by a dapper white mustache, he leaned against a stool, his alto saxophone occasionally cradled in his arms, listening appreciatively to the work of the younger musicians in his quintet.

At one point, when bassist John Leitham ripped off a particularly impressive set of notes, Carter reacted in mock astonishment. "One more time?" he said to Leitham, who nodded and continued to produce streams of rapid-fire notes. Then Carter, chuckling, turned to the audience and added, "Let him play it until he gets it right."

He was served equally solid support from the other musicians: trombonist Ira Nepus, turning out consistently attractive solos; pianist Chris Neville, whose two-handed style provided a perfect counter for Carter's saxophone; and the ever-dependable rhythm of Ralph Penland on drums.

Carter may not wish to be observed as anything more than the gifted jazz player he continues to be. But he is, nonetheless, living jazz history, playing music that reflects his decades of experience--music that should be heard by every serious jazz fan.

*

* Benny Carter Quintet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $17 cover tonight and Saturday, $15 cover Sunday, with two-drink minimum.

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