Recently, while listening to Betty Carter's latest album, a fellow writer sighed, "And some people still claim she doesn't know what she's doing." The album in question, I'm Yours, You're Mine (Verve), places more emphasis than usual on Carter's elastic command of the world's slowest tempi, with a balanced blend of recomposed standards and risk-taking originals and a couple talented young horn men joining her fluid and flexible trio. In the five decades since she began recording, Carter's nearly 70-year-old voice has deepened and mellowed, but no one who's ever heard her would mistake her for anyone else. Her smoky, chocolaty timbre still coats her prodigal solos, and her ballads still threaten to stop the clock, with molasses phrasing that lands her not just a word but an entire sentence behind the beat. As for those who complain that she indulges in excess--well, of course she does. So did Beethoven, so did Picasso. The process of creative art ensures it; the nature of innovation demands it. Fact is, Carter's note-bending, melody-stretching style conveys a slew of emotions with startling precision. She belongs to a select lineage of singers who have propelled vocal improvisation by brilliantly responding to the explorations of contemporaneous instrumentalists. As Ella Fitzgerald's insouciant melodies came to symbolize the elegant musicianship of the swing era, and as Sarah Vaughan established herself as the voice of bop by trading musical insights with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Carter in the 60s began to incorporate the careening freedom that characterized the jazz of that decade. And while she has denounced many of that era's avant-garde with characteristic outspokenness, her music testifies to the enduring impact of postbop freedom on the jazz mainstream. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000. Neil Tesser
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Anthony Barboza.