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James Carter Salutes Holiday

Saxophonist James Carter will break three years of silence in November. Silence on record, that is. The versatile reed man hasn’t put a new CD in stores since 2000, when he did double duty by dropping both Layin’ in the Cut and the fantastic Django Reinhardt tribute Chasin’ the Gypsy. Paying homage to a jazz behemoth once again, Carter recorded his forthcoming disc, Gardenias for Lady Day (out Nov. 11), in memory of singer Billie Holiday, hence the album’s title. Holiday’s official jazz nickname (they all have one) is Lady Day, and her favorite flower was the gardenia.

Gardenias will come out via Columbia Records (Carter has split with Atlantic, his label of nearly 10 years) and includes eight tunes of lovely saxophonics, string arrangements and solid riddims. Four of these are songs Holiday recorded herself—”(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone,” “I’m in the Lowdown Groove,” “Strange Fruit” and “More Than You Know”—the rest are tunes Carter thinks Ms. Day would dig on if she were alive today, including a version of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and Don Byas’ “Gloria.”

The nucleus of Gardenias is the quartet of Carter (on all sorts of saxophones plus bass and contrabass clarinets), pianist John Hicks, bassist Pete Washington and drummer Victor Lewis. These are the first appearances on a Carter album by the sidemen; we’re unsure if he intends to keep them as his working band (he could do much worse). It’s the swarm of string players, however, that give the album its decided Lady Day feel—lots of lush arrangements for violin, cello and viola here, conducted by Greg Cohen. Perhaps feeling that a Holiday tribute wouldn’t be right without a couple tracks with vocals, Carter got singer Miche Braden, who portrayed Bessie Smith in the Hartford Stage’s The Devil’s Music: The Life & Blues of Bessie Smith to lend her voice to “Strange Fruit” and “More Than You Know.” Additionally, there are appearances by French horn players Phil Myers and Erik Ralske. Vibist Erik Charlston adds a mellow flavor to “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” and plays the wind machine on “Strange Fruit.” We’re just as unsure about what a wind machine is as we are about whether or not Erik’s last name is actually Charleston, but the wind machine makes a sound that’s cool as hell.

Track list:

Gloria

Sunset

(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone

Lowdown Groove

Strange Fruit

A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing

Indian Summer

More Than You Know

Originally Published