Betty Carter, the adroit and unsurpassable jazz singer, was 61 when she took the stage at Aaron Davis Hall in New York for The Music Never Stops on March 29, 1992. Presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center, a newly formed organization at the time, it was a concert of grand, unabashed ambition, celebrating Carter's magnificent prowess in the context of a specially assembled big band with strings, as well as three all-star rhythm sections.
The concert had also been held the previous day, March 28, at Alice Tully Hall. Reviewing that performance for The New York Times, Stephen Holden noted Carter's genuine affinity, rare among leading jazz singers, for the phrasing and intonation of an instrumentalist. "Nobody shapes a note the way she does," he wrote, "slowly turning it from a rich hornlike timbre into something bitingly twangy, then softening it again."
Modern listeners will soon have a chance to hear the music from that evening. The Music Never Stops will be released as an album on Blue Engine Records, Jazz at Lincoln Center's affiliated label, on March 29 — 27 years to the day after the concert. Among its featured guests are pianists Geri Allen and John Hicks.
For Carter, who died in 1998, it will be the first posthumous release of previously unissued material. For Blue Engine, it's the first dip into a recorded archive spanning most of Jazz at Lincoln Center's three-decade-plus history. (In the interest of full disclosure, Jazz at Lincoln Center often partners with NPR Music in the making of Jazz Night in America.)
The lead single from The Music Never Stops, which premieres here, is a medley of two brisk calling cards for Carter: "Tight!" and "Mr. Gentleman." (It will be available for download and on streaming services on Feb. 1.) Along with Carter's suave and mercurial vocal performance, it features Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Ariel Roland on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.
The medley also reinforces Carter's enduring influence as both a jazz-vocal touchstone and a shaper of younger talent. "Tight," which she first recorded in the 1970s, has lately served as a signature showstopper and pledge of allegiance for the sharp young singer Jazzmeia Horn.
And "Mr. Gentleman" — which Carter introduced on a Grammy-winning 1988 album called Look What I Got! — zips along in one of the urgent, thoroughbred tempos that her accompanists came to know as a rite of passage. Dozens of younger musicians moved through Carter's employ over the years, including Chestnut and Hutchinson; like Art Blakey, she was a mentor-bandleader who took that responsibility seriously, becoming a kind of institution. (That legacy lives on in Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead, a two-week residency program at the Kennedy Center.)
By all accounts, Carter brought a similar sense of purpose to The Music Never Stops. In his liner notes for the album, Wynton Marsalis — Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic director — observes that she helped finance the concert with the $20,000 honorarium she'd received as an NEA Jazz Master (then known as the American Jazz Masters Fellowship).
Recalling her as a force in motion, Marsalis added: "She assembled three trios and a big band on a single stage and darted among the different ensembles, transitioning seamlessly and effortlessly between burning bebop, deeply felt ballads and original material for which there is no description. She wore these musicians out with her stamina."
The Music Never Stops will be available via Blue Engine Records on March 29.