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James Carter's “Gardenias for Lady Day”
The Egg - Albany, NY
March 5, 2006

by Jeff Waggoner

These days, the superb saxophonist James Carter is at the top of all the “best of” lists, owing to his massive chops.
He is like the Barry Bonds of Bar Walkers and Honkers.  He can wail, squeak, slap tongue, and play altissimo so high only Bowser can hear it.
The New York Times calls him the “ultimate peacock jazz musician,” a notice he is proud of and has posted prominently on his website.

And he DOES put on a show – which he did March 5 at the Egg, with an all-Motown quintet, including  Gerard Gibbs on piano, Ralphe Armstrong on double bass, Dwight Adams on trumpet, and Leonard C. King Jr. on drums.
The concert was billed as “Gardenias for Lady Day,” or a tribute to Billie Holiday.  Miche Braden, also a Detroit native, was the vocalist.
While intended to honor Holiday, the music in no way even attempted to imitate her languid style. Braden didn’t sing like Lady Day, and Carter didn’t play like Prez.
It was a concert that first and foremost showcased Carter’s sizzling saxophones – soprano, alto and tenor -- which crescendoed near the end of his first hour-long set, during Braden’s blistering version of Holiday’s trademark song – Strange Fruit. 
It was the anarchy of the axes.  Smoke billowed. I thought the instruments were on fire, until I saw Armstrong banging his bow on the strings of his bass, sending rosin skyward.
When Carter was first getting notice more than a decade ago, his jaw-dropping technique could overshadow many of the other young Turks, like Joshua Redman, who were just arriving on the scene.  But while Redman’s music is getting richer, deeper and more resonate, Carter doesn’t seem to be able to fold up his dazzling peacock tail and get it out of the way of the music.
Unfortunately for Carter, music isn’t a competition – or he would be the best on the planet.
As one saxophonist said who attended a music camp with Carter when he was 16 – “I lived in terror that someone would suggest a tenor battle; James would've been Julia Childs to my groggy lobster, ready for the pot.” 
Carter has the heat to cook, but if this concert was any indication – this talented musician is still needs the other ingredients for the recipe.

Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Metroland, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times. He lives in Nassau, is a student of jazz saxophone and guitar and can be frequently found at jazz, blues and folk concerts.