Further Definitions ... That was the name
Benny Carter applied to his remarkable album of 1961 (GRP/Impulse!).
I've listed it as one of the essential ten jazz albums. Benny
died July 12, 2003, about a month before his 96th birthday.
He was a great figure in jazz, but one who did not get the public
acclaim he deserved. He was an innovator and a great player,
on alto sax primarily, but also on clarinet and trumpet. He
led some classical big bands, was a terrific composer and arranger,
and later wrote scores for film and television, as well as being
a principal force in integrating the musicians' union. He was
one of those figures who loom huge in the landscape of his chosen
field, revered by his peers, but never seem to appear on the
public's radar screen. He should have been a household name.
I can hardly exaggerate his impact on the music. He was a giant.
For the past year or so I've been doing a monthly show on the
local NPR affiliate, KUFM
in Missoula, Montana. I appear on Terry Conrad's two-hour jazz
show, Jazz Sessions, on the last Thursday of the month at 2
p.m.(Mountain time). The station will soon be available to the
Internet. Look for it. I've been playing a lot of great music
and I thought it was way past time to add to my jazz commentary
on the website.
Benny Carter has long seemed to me one of the essential jazz
performers and creative forces. "Further Definitions"
may be his greatest single album, although I like almost everything
this wonderful musician did on records, starting as early as
the late `20s right up to his last few albums in the `90s. He
had a seemingly effortless style, with great clarity of tone,
no affectations. He could play with anybody, in any style. He
and Johnny Hodges literally invented alto sax style and until
Charlie Parker came along they were the acknowledged masters.
Carter actually performed with Parker a couple of times, once
with Hodges in company. This album is available on CD, as "The
Charlie Parker Sides," Verve 22508. It was recorded in
June and July of 1952.
But back to "Further Definitions," which was a 1961
session that reprised a much admired recording in Paris, in
1937, featuring Carter with Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt,
as well as a couple of excellent French saxists (Alix Combelle
and Andre Ekyan.) On the 1961 session, recorded by GRP/Impulse!
and still readily available on CD, Carter is brilliant. He composed
two songs and arranged all the others. Hawkins is great on "Body
and Soul," his tour de force tune, but to me the outstanding
number on the set is "Honeysuckle Rose." The French
saxists are replaced by the great Phil Woods and the estimable
Charlie Rouse. The rhythm section is even better than the original,
with Dick Katz on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Jo Jones
on drums. John Collins on guitar is fine, but he isn't Django
and one doesn't hear much from him. This is one of the all-time
great jazz albums.
In the early `90s I taped a four-hour history of the career
of Benny Carter and I interviewed him by telephone on a radio
hookup from his home in L.A. I asked him about the earlier session
(I suppose one should call it "Definitions"), especially
a sequence on "Crazy Rhythm," where Hawkins gets off
a tremendous chorus and is then urged on by Django, shouting
"Go! Go! Go!" Carter laughed about that and said that,
as far as he could tell, that might have been the extent of
Carter was a modest man, self-deprecating, although clearly
aware of his position in the music. But when I tried to make
a comparison between him and Joseph Haydn, he was quick to demur.
My point was that Haydn had similarly had an amazingly long
career, in which he had an impact on the music and the musicians,
from the era of J.S. Bach, to Mozart, to Ludwig van Beethoven.
He was the one figure who linked in his lifetime the era of
the baroque with the romantics. Carter linked the early urban
jazz style of Armstrong with the swing era and into bop, and
on to late modernism. But he was clearly uncomfortable with
my comparison. "Haydn! No, no. I have just been playing
my music." I thought he was being too respectful of a German
composer/performer from a rather earlier musical period, and
said, "Well, you're both musicians," I said, in the
sense of you both put your pants on one leg at a time. But Benny
felt that it was too much of a burden.
In the ensuing years I would occasionally call Benny to ask
how he was doing, inquire about his projects, and so on. He
was always very gracious and amiable, although he declined to
do any more recorded interviews, after awhile, saying, "At
my age, I realize that my most precious possession is time and
I've got too much unfinished work to do to spend even a minute
talking about myself."
The most amusing incident to come out of all this came a few
years later. Among the things he'd told me was that, yes, he'd
played with just about everybody, but he regretted never having
recorded with Louis Armstrong. "I never played with the
great man," is how he put it, adding, "... at least,
not on records." Subsequently, however, I noticed that
he had played with Armstrong, on the soundtrack of the film,
"The Five Pennies," in 1958. This was a film biography
of the white cornetist, Red Nichols, who appeared in the film,
or at least was on the soundtrack -- his role was played by
Danny Kaye, who fingered the trumpet while Nichols blew, often
in duets with Armstrong. Carter arranged most of the tunes for
the film and conducted the orchestra. The biographer/discographer,
Ed Berger, identifies at least four of the numbers with Armstrong
on which Carter also played, although he doesn't solo.
I remarked on this to my then ten-year old son, Devin. "I
guess Benny must have forgotten that." I found a recording
of the sound track and I agree with Berger: Carter's presence
is clear enough. Subsequently, Devin was traveling down to Phoenix
to visit his grandparents. He was unaccompanied, but the Delta
Airlines people kept an eye on him. In Salt Lake City, Devin
noticed a distinguished elderly man who came into the First
Class compartment and was much fussed over by the stewardesses.
Devin, a sharp kid, recognized the passenger. He went up to
him and said, "Aren't you Benny Carter?"
Benny was taken aback, not used to being recognized by children,
but he said he was, in fact, the man himself.
Devin demanded: "Why did you tell my Dad you never played
with Louis Armstrong?"
"Who is your Dad?" Benny asked. When told, he said,
"Well, it's true." But Devin reminded him of the film
soundtrack. Carter told him that it wasn't, after all, what
you would call a real jazz session. One can see the point.
In some of the more recent shows on "Jazz Sessions,"
I've had a lot of fun in discovering the brilliance of the late
pianist, Sonny Clark. When I first was tipped to him by my friend
Rich, the Jazz Junky of the Seven Dials, in London, I'd never
heard of Sonny. He'd appeared on numerous Blue Note recordings
in late 50s and early 60s, before dying young, in 1963. I'd
probably heard him -- I must have! -- but I wasn't listening.
Now I started to listen, particularly to his recordings with
John Coltrane (on "Sonny's Crib," 1957), that featured
Donald Byrd and Curtis Fuller, along with Paul Chambers and
Art Taylor. But, in fact, there are several outstanding albums.
I heartily recommend: Sonny Clark Trio (1957), Cool Struttin'
(1958), Standards (1958), another Trio (1960), and perhaps the
best of all, Leapin' and Lopin' (1961). He appears on many other
Blue Note and other recordings from the period, but these are
the ones on which he is the nominal leader. I had a chance to
talk to the nonpareil clarinetist, Buddy DeFranco, about Sonny,
a few months ago. DeFranco recalled that Clark had played with
him for a couple of years. Their recordings together appear
on the Mosaic set (no longer available, except perhaps on eBay,
or in used record shops), The Complete Verve Recordings of Buddy
DeFranco with Sonny Clark. "He was a very smart, brilliant
pianist," Buddy told me, "but I think he fell prey
to the wise guys, who got him hooked on heroin. While he was
with me I don't think he used it -- he knew I wouldn't tolerate
it. But it eventually got him. A great player." Jazz critic
Scott Yanow identified Clark as "one of the most talented
of the Bud Powell-influenced pianists." I certainly concur.
Still available in stores is a Giants of Jazz CD53227, Buddy
DeFranco Quartet, with Sonny Clark, Gene Wright, and Bobby White.
It's difficult to characterize Clark's playing, but one feature
that amazed me -- other than his terrifically melodic modernism
-- was his tendency to inject a lightly played "drone"
note with his left hand, as a kind of accompaniment. You don't
hear it at first, but soon it adds a definite rhythm and harmonic
quality that is infectious. He was extremely facile and sure-fingered,
and that melodic quality is remarkable.
Jon A. Jackson, September 2003
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