DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In March 1992, jazz singer Betty Carter was enjoying a late career renaissance when she played a pair of ambitious weekend concerts for New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center. One of those is now on CD Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it shows how Betty Carter had earned her acclaim.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "30 YEARS")
BETTY CARTER: (Singing) Darling, come close. Let's talk. Wrap your arms around me like you used to do. Lately you've been so quiet. Let me fix you dinner. What do you want to say?
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Onstage, Betty Carter looked right at home, as if performing were her natural element. Her March 1992 New York concerts were titled "The Music Never Stops" - also the name of a new CD drawn from one of those shows. As that title promised, the music onstage was continuous even as her backing shifted from small group to string sextet to a sometimes swaggering, sometimes discreet big band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONLIGHT IN VERMONT")
CARTER: (Singing) You and I, moonlight in Vermont. Telegraph cables sing down the highway and travel each bend in the road. People who meet in this romantic setting are so hypnotized by the lovely...
WHITEHEAD: The Lincoln Center big band chimes in on four numbers, but Betty Carter's music was really about her interaction with her trios, which gave her more room to move. She does her best work here with her then-regulars - Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Ariel Roland on bass and either Greg Hutchinson or Clarence Penn on drums. Selections include the quintessential Carter tune "Tight," a staple of her live shows.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIGHT")
CARTER: (Singing) I don't know where my man is. Where can he be? What is he doing? I've been looking and looking and looking and looking all over hoping he'll be found. I might be loose. I don't like it. Take my advice, girls. If you find a man, hold on tight. Don't let him, don't let him, don't let him, don't let him - hold onto him tight. Don't let him go.
WHITEHEAD: Betty Carter didn't have a gorgeous voice like Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. But she had a genius for rhythm and improvising away from a melody. That was more important than clean enunciation, not that she'd neglect a song's meaning. Her lyrics often address the ever-problematic relations between women and men. But she put so much feeling into a song. At times, it hardly matters if she's singing actual words. Her scat syllables echo American speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIDGES")
WHITEHEAD: Betty Carter was always inspired by the rhythms, harmonies and extreme fast and slow tempos of bebop, the jazz she grew up on. But in her later career prime, Betty was no straight bopper. She had her own style, more open and fluid, where she and the band could stretch out a song's form on the fly. Her personal groove was most evident at medium tempos, where she'd surf over the rhythm.
There are a few such glorious moments on the Betty Carter CD "The Music Never Stops." That weekend in 1992, at age 62, she was at the top of her game and had New York at her feet for all the right reasons - her own woman, in charge. You can hear how good that made Betty Carter feel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOOD LIFE")
CARTER: (Singing) Oh, remember I love you. And in case you wonder why, wake up and kiss the good life goodbye. Wake up and kiss, wake up and kiss the good life goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. And in case you wonder why, wake up and kiss the good life goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and The Audio Beat. He reviewed "The Music Never Stops," the new live performance recording of Betty Carter from 1992. On tomorrow's show, the rise of white supremacy after the Civil War and Reconstruction, when white Southerners found ways to roll back new rights for African-Americans - a talk with Henry Louis Gates Jr. about his new book "Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy And The Rise Of Jim Crow." It's also the basis for his new PBS special - hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON TRIO'S "LIGHT BLUE")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON TRIO'S "LIGHT BLUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.