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.