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Carter's virtuosic sound is heard in Bowl tribute

August 10, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The Benny Carter tribute Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl couldn't have come on a more appropriate date: the 100th anniversary of the birth of the iconic, multiskilled artist who died in 2003. So it wasn't surprising that Carter's creative imagination -- a vital element through nearly eight decades -- was a constant presence in the long and varied program.

The event-packed evening, hosted by Quincy Jones, featured a diverse group of performers. The piano bench, for example, was claimed -- at different times -- by Tamir Hendelman, Gerald Clayton, Eldar and Chris Neville. The saxophone spotlight embraced James Moody, Mel Martin, Jeff Clayton and most of the sax section of the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. And vocals were provided by Roberta Gambarini, Marlena Shaw and -- too briefly -- the ever-whimsical Moody.

Add the engaging guitar work of Russell Malone, the articulate trumpet playing of Roy Hargrove and the power and glory of the CHJO, and there was enough firepower on stage to trigger a pyrotechnic display of music written, arranged and inspired by Carter.

For the most part, it was a display to remember. Instrumentally, the CHJO' s rendering of "Symphony in Riffs," "Coalition" and -- as a climax -- the Carter-through-Count Basie "Vine Street Rumble" captured the craftsmanship and the swing characteristic of Carter's big-band scoring. Curiously, on the one number that featured an extended alto sax solo -- "Souvenir" -- Jeff Clayton elected to play in a manner rich with the melodic bends and sliding glissandos typical of Johnny Hodges, whose playing in the '30s and '40s was both the counter and the competition to the more crisp, tonally centered Carter style.

Gambarini's versions of two memorable Carter ballads -- "When Lights Are Low" and "Only Trust Your Heart" -- were other high points of the evening. Blessed with superb musicality and a seemingly intuitive grasp of jazz vocal elements tracing back to Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, Gambarini captured the songs' subtle interplay of words and music.

Other highlights included the brisk improvisational exchange between Moody and Hargrove on "Courtship," Malone's captivating take on "All About You," Eldar's partnership with Malone on "Melancholy Ballad" and the sturdy saxophone work of Martin with the Benny Carter Trio and the Benny Carter Sax Ensemble. Shaw's off-putting version of "Here's to Life" was both an odd choice and an eccentric interpretation. Matters improved with her reading of Carter's "Brothers Under the Skin."

All in all it was a much deserved tribute, and the best moments came with the brief film clips of Carter -- virtuosic on both alto saxophone and trumpet -- in action.

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