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Popular Music and Jazz


FEBRUARY 1996
BY BOB BLUMENTHAL AND CHARLES M. YOUNG





THE LESSER-KNOWN TALENTS OF A LEGEND

In a recording career that has spanned sixty-eight years, the living jazz legend Benny Carter has played almost every musical instrument and has written for virtually every musical situation. An influential alto saxophonist, a brilliant arranger for big bands, and a key figure in the integration of the Hollywood soundtrack studios, Carter has also made a quiet yet persistent mark as a tunesmith. In the weeks surrounding his eighty-eighth birthday, last August, he gathered fourteen leading vocalists to make this last point, and the results are assembled in The Benny Carter Songbook (MusicMasters).

Although Carter's playing has reflected modern developments, even his recent songwriting conveys the shapeliness and sophistication commonly identified with stage revues and movie musicals of the past. The world-weary sass that Ruth Brown imparts to "My Kind of Trouble Is You," the fragile optimism that Dianne Reeves shows on "Only Trust Your Heart," and the simple warmth that Shirley Horn finds in "A Kiss From You"--to take three examples--indicate that Carter's old-fashioned strategies succeed because his melodies almost sing themselves.

Peggy Lee, Joe Williams, and Jon Hendricks are among the other participants, of whom three of the most striking are newer voices--Nancy Marano and Carmen Bradford (respectively covering two gems from the 1940s, "Lonely Woman" and "Key Largo"), and Diana Krall, who draws the best of the five new tunes, "Fresh Out of Love." Each singer enjoys lustrous support from the alto sax of the ageless composer and the complementary musings of two players half his age, the cornetist Warren Vache and the pianist Chris Neville. --B.B.

Carter with Hendricks
Photo: Steve Eichner


ONE MAN'S BEDROOM BAND

Jonny Polonsky, who was recording demo tapes in his bedroom, sent some of them to the alternative-rock icon Frank Black, who liked them so much that he took Polonsky to a real recording studio to make a demo tape. The result impressed the people at American Recordings, who signed Polonsky on the spot. He took the money, bought some new equipment, and re-recorded the album back in his bedroom. So that's Polonsky playing every instrument on Hi My Name Is Jonny (American). Home recording has progressed to the point that most listeners won't know they aren't hearing a good rock-and-roll band, but the album does have a certain insular quality. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to guess that a guy who writes songs like "It's Good to Sleep" and "I Don't Know What to Dream at Night" has been spending lots of time in the bedroom. A cross between Buddy Holly and Jonathan Richman, Polonsky sings about the joys of introversion and the dangers of solipsism. Even when he's singing about love, what interests him is the ecstasy of infatuation in his own mind--not the love object, which is dangerously beyond his control. What will interest the general listener is Polonsky's precocious charm, undeniable melodic gift, and propulsive energy, which transcend any navel-gazing in the lyrics. His guileless singing only approximates the notes, but won't stop you from humming along on most of the tunes. Introverts are entitled to rock too. --C.M.Y.

Photo: Jim Alexander Newberry


BACK DOWN TO EARTH

"Space music," a pejorative term to many musicians, has been Jane Ira Bloom's goal for several seasons. By enhancing her soprano saxophone with electronic effects, she has created galactic soundscapes in venues as diverse as Carnegie Hall and NASA's Mission Control. Her new album, The Nearness (Arabesque), is different, a down-to-earth acoustic set of original tunes and reimagined standards. Call it Bloom Unplugged, or Plain Jane.

By concentrating on the soprano sax, Bloom has developed a tart sound and an enveloping sense of linear development. Her control of dynamics and varied attacks make an original like "It's a Corrugated World" crackle, while she paints new colors on such warhorses as "Summertime" and " 'Round Midnight."

Bloom is also an exceptional collaborator, and The Nearness might have been titled for her skill at merging with the strong personalities in her ensemble. The pianist Fred Hersch, a longtime partner, strikes a similar balance of reflection and exploration, and the rhythm team of Rufus Reid on bass and Bobby Previte on drums also knows when to snap and when to settle. The masterstroke, however, is the inclusion of Kenny Wheeler's flugelhorn and Julian Priester's trombone in the front line. Both Wheeler and Priester are fearless musical explorers with velvet-soft sounds. They previously blended together in the bassist Dave Holland's quintet, one of the great jazz groups of the past decade, and here they have a leader who shares their commitment to beauty and adventure. --B.B.

Photo: Kristine Larsen



Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.
Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.






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