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Mel Martin/Benny Carter Quintet: Just Friends

Benny Carter died in the summer of 2003, just over four years before his centennial anniversary. During his long life, the protean Carter recorded in nine different decades on a half-dozen different instruments, led big bands in America and Europe, was an African-American pioneer in the Hollywood film and TV music fields, and produced significant extended compositions for jazz orchestras into the 1980s and 1990s. As a player, he was best known for his distinctive alto saxophone style (the only major alternative to the Johnny Hodges style in the pre-bop years), although he was also a formidable trumpet and clarinet player during the swing era. As an arranger he helped codify and define big-band jazz writing, especially for reeds, and his large body of memorable work makes him one of the music’s premier composers.

Carter was 86 when he joined tenor saxophonist-flutist Mel Martin in April 1994 for a gig at Yoshi’s that yielded the live tracks on Just Friends. Heard on four of the six total tracks, Carter’s alto sax is as suave, tart, swinging and inventive as it was before he became a senior citizen. He and Martin romp through “Perdido,” trade crisp fours on the title tune, and blend lead and obligato lines on “Secret Love.” Carter is mesmerizing in his deeply blues-tinged solo on his evocative “Elegy in Blue.” Martin’s flute and Roger Kellaway’s piano reinforce the case for Carter’s “People Time” as an indelible jazz standard.

The Benny Carter Centennial Project uses a varying cast and the intimacy of small combos to pay tribute to a musician best known for his big-band accomplishments. Carter’s compositions, 14 in all, dominate, including a couple being premiered on record here. But Carter’s importance as an arranger for saxophones is also honored on two tracks reprising his charts for “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “All of Me,” from 1938 and 1940 recordings.

Most of the musicians on the Carter Project worked and/or recorded with Carter, including the constant rhythm section of pianist Chris Neville, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Steve Johns. The tracks range from swingers to ballads to Afro-Latin-tinged numbers, but they all share the suppleness of line and warm tunefulness that characterized Carter’s compositions and made them fertile ground for lyricists. The duo of Phil Woods, alto sax, and John Coates, piano, captures the limpid lyricism of Carter’s deep melodic gifts on “Johnny” and “Other Times.” And trumpeters Randy Sandke and Warren Vaché, who kick off the album with a fervid “I’m in the Mood for Swing,” reveal Carter’s graceful ballad style.

Bill Kirchner’s soprano sax etches a haunting version of Carter’s 1939 big-band theme, “Melancholy Lullaby,” and trumpeter Joe Wilder brings spiritual gravity to “The Blessing” from Carter’s Peaceful Warrior. Tenor saxophonist Loren Schoenberg and the trio combine two Carter waltzes in a freeform medley, and guitarist Russell Malone’s tender solo rendition of “All About You” concludes by segueing into Carter’s piano solo recording from 2001 of the same elegant melody to end the album.

Originally Published