When Lights Are Low [Living Era]
This chronologically precise double-disc tribute to multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter is one of the very best compilations in the entire Living Era catalog. With loving attention to detail, 51 carefully chosen selections are backed up with concise discographical references to Carter's solos and accompaniments, using a sort of shorthand to specify which instruments he played on each track and even indicating the bar length of each solo. Disc one opens with Carter's most famous composition, "When Lights Are Low," recorded in London in 1936 by his Swing Octet with Elisabeth Welch singing Spencer Williams' lyrics. The next 50 tracks are arranged in exact chronological order. This allows the listener to trace Carter's professional progress step-by-step all the way up through his marvelous small-group sessions with Norman Granz in 1952. The producers elected to skip over Carter's early work with Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten and focused instead upon his 32-bar solo on "I'd Love It," recorded by McKinney's Cotton Pickers in 1929 with Fats Waller at the piano. This is followed by a magnificent rendition of Waller's sunny opus "Keep a Song in Your Soul" played by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in 1930. The rest of this early period in Carter's career is represented by one of his first sessions as a leader and several ensembles encumbered with what seem in retrospect to be racially coded names: Spike Hughes and His Negro Orchestra and that mercurial jam band with constantly-changing personnel billed as the Chocolate Dandies. Carter's adventures in Europe from 1936 to 1938 are well-documented by the records he made in London, Paris, and The Hague, with bands led by himself, Willie Lewis and Coleman Hawkins. Disc two finds Carter easing back into the thriving jazz scene in New York; sitting in with Lionel Hampton in 1938, and leading various ensembles under his own name (except for two more editions of the Chocolate Dandies) during the first half of the '40s. "Melancholy Lullaby," recorded for the Vocalion label in 1939, became the Carter Orchestra's signature tune. Highlights from this part of the Benny Carter story include Billie Holiday's gorgeous version of the "St. Louis Blues"; a rosy rendering of Jule Styne's "Sunday" and Carter's suave big band recording of "Poinciana," a number eight R&B hit (and a number 11 pop hit) recorded in San Francisco in October of 1943. Benny Carter's early maturity found him adapting marvelously to currents in modern music. Evidence of this hale and hearty resilience is provided by Carter's own "Riffamarole," recorded in Los Angeles in March of 1945 by the Capitol International Jazzmen; his ultra-luxurious "Malibu" waxed a few weeks later, and the racing swingy-boppish "Jump Call" recorded for V-Disc the following year along with a lushly rhapsodic arrangement of Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss." Perhaps the toughest Chocolate Dandies of all came together in 1946 to cook like mad on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the ferocious "Cadillac Slim," a jam tune composed by Ben Webster and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Billy Strayhorn's "Rain Check." Four immaculate interpretations of jazz standards recorded in collaboration with producer Norman Granz in 1952 form the perfect conclusion for this exceptionally fine tribute to Benny Carter and to jazz in general.