By Don Heckman
The vast accomplishments that made Benny Carter a jazz icon are far too numerous to mention here. Suffice to say that he was a brilliant instrumentalist (on saxophone, trumpet and more), a gifted composer/arranger for everything from small jazz bands to symphonic orchestras, the creator of a string of Swing Era big band classics, the songwriter of such memorable songs as “Key Largo,” “Only Trust Your Heart,” “When Lights Are Low” and much, much more.
When singer/writer/actress Deborah Pearl became friends with Carter and his wife, Hilma, she realized that something was missing from the Carter catalog of accomplishments. Despite the fact that he had written the hit songs noted above, his catalog of music was filled with dozens or rich, lyrical melodies, few of which had ever had lyrics written for them.
After Carter passed away, Pearl asked Helma for permission to write some lyrics for a Carter song. Hilma agreed. But the songwriting soon became more than a one-tune goal, building up to the 13 song folio included in Pearl’s new recording, Souvenir of You: New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics.
On Friday night at Vitello’s, Pearl — backed by the stellar ensemble of pianist/arranger Lou Forestieri, alto saxophonist/flutist Don Shelton, bassist Chris Colangelo and drummer Jimmy Branly — offered an impressive musical introduction to the new body of Carter songs included on the album.
Pearl was a quirky performer. Wearing a dark beret, horn-rimmed glasses and a frequent smile, she introduced every song with an anecdote and, often, a laugh. Her goal in many of the pieces — especially songs such as “Skydance For Two,” “Wonderland (Isle of Love)” and “People Time” — was to honor the long, loving relationship between Benny and Hilma Carter.
Other songs pursued different Carter goals: “Souvenir of You” was written as a tribute to Johnny Hodges, a theme that Pearl addresses in her lyrics; “An Elegy in Blue” memorializes a Japanese friend of Carters, and Pearl’s poignant lyrics evoke the sadness of a friend’s passing.
Although her prior background has been as a writer, actress, commercial singer, filmmaker and more, Pearl’s performance of the Carter songs resonated with jazz authenticity. Occasionally scatting, or singing in tandem with Shelton via Forestieri’s hard swinging charts, she delivered each song with convincing believability – as a jazz vocalist and as a story teller.
She was immensely aided by the fiery alto saxophone and dynamic flute playing of Shelton, as well as the solid support of the rhythm trio of Forestieri, Shelton and Wild.
The recording, Souvenir of You: New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics, is now available. But one hopes that Pearl also does more live performances of the songs produced by her extraordinary partnership with Carter’s rich musical imagination.