How can it be 20 years since Betty Carter left us? A performer of extraordinary improvisational resources and boundless energy, she blazed new trails as a musician, businesswoman, and talent-nurturing bandleader. Criminally underrecorded during her formative decades, she had to launch her own label Bet-Car to capture herself in full flower, starting at the age of 40 with her classic 1970 album At the Village Vanguard. The first release of previously unheard music by Carter in almost 30 years is more than a welcome addition to her underfed discography. The Music Never Stops fills out a crucial late-career chapter, documenting Carter at her most ambitious.
It’s hard to imagine much else happening jazzwise in New York City on the night of this expansive 1992 Jazz at Lincoln Center program, which featured Carter accompanied by three different trios, a full jazz orchestra with her longtime pianist John Hicks, and a string section. There are far too many highlights to detail, but some moments stand out as timeless vocal artistry. Carter winding herself around Melba Liston’s arrangement of “Make It Last” for orchestra and strings is a sumptuous stunner. She changes gears with exquisite calibration on an extended, questioning medley of “Why Him?,” “Where or When,” and “What’s New?” backed by her young protégés Cyrus Chestnut, Ariel Roland, and Greg Hutchinson (who do the lion’s share of the accompaniment).
In a preview of her inspired 1994 live album Feed the Fire, Carter and Geri Allen plumb the depths of desperation on “If I Should Lose You.” It’s a rare sojourn into pathos for a singer who tended to keep on the sunny (or funny) side, as on another galloping tour de force with the Chestnut trio during Carter’s own piece of advice to single women, “Tight!” What a woman.