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Published: 2004/01/27
by Chris Gardner

Gardenias For Lady Day – James Carter

Columbia Records 89032

Call it whatever you want – the spark, the snap, the voice – whatever it is

that sets a player apart, James Carter has it. His playing on this

collection, which covers songs made famous by Billie Holiday, is electric,

no matter what horn he picks up. Bari, tenor, soprano and f mezzo

saxophones, bass and contrabass clarinets, he draws the best out of each.

He attacks the soprano in the swinging latter half of "Indian Summer" with

focused aggression. He slithers around on the baritone sax, snaking through

the low, throaty notes. His tenor work on "Gloria," the opener, begins with

a lyrical clarity and finishes with a gritty snarl. Miche Braden lends her

compelling voice to "Strange Fruit," but her throat-splitting wail can't

match Carter's hard-blowing fury when the tune reaches its eruptive climax.

In short, to repeat, James Carter has got the it, and isn't afraid to use


He may drop some imperfect notes, but if he does they are few and elusive.

The album as a whole, however, is full of distractions. I would be remiss

here if I did not admit a strong, anti-string bias in jazz. Even Miles'

landmark "Sketches of Spain," which I admire, hasn't hit my turntable in

years. I have never understood the inclination to incorporate strings

beside or behind the horn, and I don't understand it here. The meat of

these songs, the part you wait for, the part worth focusing on, always falls

in the middle, between the strings. When Carter is spotlighted, the album

cooks, but sooner or later some damn string section will come along to sap

all the sizzle out of things. This is never more apparent than on "Indian

Summer." Carter blisters the soprano, sets a fire and lets it burn, but the

strings surge in like succubi as the tempo shifts and drain the life out of

the track. There is nothing particularly wrong with the arrangements. It

isn't the charting I detest; it is the mere inclusion of the strings.

James Carter is well worth listening to. His interpretations here are,

while not ground-breaking, categorically sound. Miche Braden's vocal

contributions are solid and welcome. Gardenias for Lady Day is, all

in all, a solid album; I just can't get past the strings.

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