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Reviews: Benny Carter/American Jazz Orchestra: Central City Sketches

The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988

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Francis Davis, High Fidelty (March 1988)


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Doozy (First and Second Versions); When Lights Are Low; A Kiss from You; Sleep (Burtnett; Geibel); Lonesome Nights; Easy Money; Symphony in Riffs; Souvenir; Blues in My Heart; Central City Sketches. Benny Carter, Conductor, arranger, alto saxophone, trumpet; The American Jazz Or• chestra; John Lewis, Musical Director.

"Symphony in Riffs" is the apt title of a 1933 Benny Carter composition reprised on this 1987 studio session with the American Jazz Orchestra. But all of the charts that Carter brings to his first date with a big band in three decades are sym­phonies in riffs: The achievement of grandeur through economy is what gives his orchestrations their timeless appeal.

Recorded [in] March [ 1987], a week after an SRO New York concert in early celebra­tion of Carter's eightieth birthday, Central City Sketches suggests that not the least of the great alto saxophonist's plenary abilities is hoodwinking Father Time. His wraparound blues choruses on "Easy Money," to cite one example among many, confirm that he remains one of jazz's most dazzling improvisers--still in full posses­sion of the roseate, almost "legitimate" tone that has been his signature for more than half a century now, but thoroughly modem in his note values and harmonic reach. Central City Sketches is an in­valuable Carter retrospective, with material ranging from the Thirties' "Lonesome Nights," "When Lights Are Low," and "Blues in My Heart" ( unaccountably saddl­ed with a boogie-woogie beat--Carter's on­ly injudicious revision) to the ingratiatingly varied six-part title suite, presented as a work-in-progress at the New York concert and finished just in time for this recording session.

The set also marks an auspicious recor­ding debut for the American Jazz Or­chestra, with musical director John Lewis spelling Dick Katz at the piano for sharp­witted choruses on four numbers, in­cluding Carter's no-doze arrangement of the Fred Waring warhorse "Sleep." The brainchild of jazz critic Gary Giddins, the AJO is a repertory band dedicated to the proposition that what's needed to keep the mold off classic jazz is exposure to the fresh air of performance. This terrific album pro­ves the point and then some.

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