She was the most adventurous of all the jazz singers, and yet to hear her on record was to catch only two-thirds of the deal. The rest lay in the spell she cast in person. Her innate strength of presence was amplified by the visuals: a billowing motion that was part dance, part conducting, part enacting the words and part the physical manifestation of reaching between improbable intervals of pitch. To witness Betty Carter live was to be bewitched.
It was also to empathise with her musicians. For much of her career she ran an unofficial finishing school in which each generation’s finest passed through her band to have their rough edges honed, like getting a buzz cut upon entering the army. With Betty this smartening-up and dressing-down was not just a behind-the-scenes affair, however. If the tempo or dynamics were not to her liking during a performance, her high-beam withering glare must have made the culprits long for a trapdoor in the stage.
The meek did not survive the Carter experience. I nearly didn’t, myself. I once interviewed her by phone when she was only home for an hour or so between the end of a US tour and the start of a European one. Understandably more intent on packing than chatting, she made her displeasure plain, reducing me to blithering apologies, until we dug deep into her music for the brief time she could afford. That was prior to her first Oz visit in 1995 when she was 65 – and rightly convinced her voice was still improving: it was more accurate, even as she brought an ever-greater originality of conception to her mostly standard repertoire.
Late-period Carter, from 1979’s brilliant The Audience with Betty Carter (initially released on her own Bet-Car label) onwards, was her heyday, long after she’d sung with Charlie Parker when in her teens, or been christened “Betty Bebop” by band-leader Lionel Hampton’s wife. Betty detested the epithet and Hampton didn’t care for her scatting. In fact he fired her seven times in less than three years. Then Miles Davis recommended her to Ray Charles, with whom she made Baby, It’s Cold Outside a global hit in 1961. That, of course, had the record companies salivating, but Betty, who knew she was born to improvise, spent the next decade warring with the industry and raising two sons.
In her last 25 years she knew exactly what she wanted from her young players, and in auditions her music soon exposed any charlatans among them, because her preferred tempos were either rocket-ship fast or, more often, so slow that time seemed to stand still between beats.
As much as she loved sharing the thrill of the new with these gifted younger people, she also relished the downy bed of absolute confidence provided by peers such as pianist Geri Allen, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, with whom she toured in the 1990s. They intuitively knew how best to complement Betty’s melodic freefalls, as may be heard on 1994’s live Feed the Fire.
By then her improvising was completely organic and unselfconscious; her deeper notes sumptuous and cello-like. So astonishing was her pitch and breath control that she could execute daring glissandi, swooping up or down to the target note, and then hold it for improbably long periods. Almost every syllable was sliding towards a destination, or away from one towards an ambiguity. The ballads allowed the greatest expression of her creativity: a slow-motion, ritualistic realm, like jazz being played under water.
Standouts include Love Notes (which she co-wrote), a radically reimagined Lover Man, If I Should Lose You (distended from sad to tragic in a duet with Allen), a groovy All or Nothing at All (with Holland), and a startling free improvisation with DeJohnette (What Is This Tune?), that morphs (via Holland’s gorgeous arco playing) into Day Dream, the emotional epicentre of the album and the apotheosis of Carter’s artistry. She died in 1999.
Feed the Fire streams on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=OLAK5uy_lDFHqR44zc-ampDyLfKwGc8KRGDq_X4FU