This boxed set of four CDs recorded between 1987 and 1989 illustrates Benny Carter's versatility performing with four different groups. He was already aged 80 when he recorded the first of these albums, yet there is no sign of ageing. Indeed, Benny stayed alive and active until he was 95.
From the very first track, the listener is struck by Carter's pure, mellow sound, putting him in contention with Johnny Hodges and Willie Smith as one of the three altoists in jazz with the sweetest tone. This CD also exhibits Benny as a composer, since he wrote all eleven tunes. Dizzy Gillespie makes guest appearances on three tracks, playing with restraint and harmonizing well with Carter. Howard Alden guests on seven tracks, and justifies his presence in the opening title-track, blending with Carter melodiously in the theme statement and supplying a clear-cut solo. Roland Hanna swings comfortably, and Mraz swaps eights and then fours with Bellson.
The same sort of praise might be accorded to all eleven tracks on this CD, with Dizzy Gillespie coordinating clearly with Carter in Another Time, Another Place and contributing a muted solo. Dizzy's solo on Not So Blue is also tempered so as to fit in with the generally relaxed mood of the session. Gillespie lets himself go (though still muted) in the Latin idiom of South Side Samba, which is as close to a calypso as a samba. Louie Bellson adds a drum solo in which you can sense the tune's theme.
The second CD displays Benny Carter's skills not only as a soloist and composer but also as an arranger, since he arranged all eight tracks - for five saxophones plus rhythm section. Carter had long been a past master at arranging for saxophone sections, from 1937 when he wrote arrangements for a sax section of himself, Coleman Hawkins, Andr‚ Ekyan and Alix Combelle.
Carter's skill is shown in the adventurously fast Over the Rainbow, where the five saxes blend in perfect harmony. All members of the septet get the chance for a solo, mostly half a chorus each, although Benny gets a whole chorus and the bassist and drummer share their half. In terms of tone, Carter stands out from the other saxophonists with his total purity of sound. All the other tracks make the most of the contrast between the soloists and the sax ensembles.
Unlike the three other CDs, the third disc is a live recording, taped at Carlos I in New York in October 1988. This is a simple quartet session which allows Benny's alto to shine. The seven tracks are mostly jazz standards, with a couple of Carter originals; Key Largo which has a gentle Latin-American pulse, and Time for the Blues, which Carter plays on trumpet, while Richard Wyands contributes a suitably down-home piano solo.
The final CD puts together two of the great alto-saxophonists in jazz: Benny Carter and Phil Woods. It is interesting to compare their contrasting styles; Woods having a more extrovert tone, betraying his bebop influences, although he is just as adroit and impeccable as Carter. On Benny Carter's, We Were in Love, both men change their instruments: Carter playing trumpet and Woods on clarinet. In My Man Phil, Carter even sings in praise of Phil Woods, and Phil justifies the acclaim with a vivacious three-chorus solo.
This is a varied, generous and fascinating collection, showcasing different aspects of Benny Carter, one of the all-time greats in jazz.
Tony Augarde, Musicweb-international.com