There have been a number of jazz musicians who have recorded with the backing of a string ensemble. Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz to name a few, sought a lush orchestral canvas on which to paint their own improvised inspirations. Jazz saxophone phenomenon James Carter throws his hat in the ring with a tribute to Billy Holiday with his CD Gardenias for Lady Day
. The title is indicative of the flower Billie Holiday often wore behind her ear. The "gardenias" Carter records are tunes specifically associated with Billie Holiday, such as Lewis Allen’s "Strange Fruit," that incomparable ballad about lynching, that has been referred to as the most important song of the civil rights movement and one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, or tunes recorded by contemporaries of Holiday’s such as Don Byas, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins. Carter’s homage comes as a result of Holiday’s influence on him and his desire to have had the opportunity to play behind her. He employs vocalist Miche Braden so he may have the opportunity to play behind a vocalist as he did in his younger years playing along with Holiday’s recordings. On the tune "Strange Fruit," however Carter does much more than play behind the vocals and Braden does much more than merely interpret the song. The version of "Strange Fruit" here is an incomparable expression of anguish and terror heard through the screams of Braden’s voice and the shriek of Carter’s saxophone.
Gardenia’s for Lady Day also is not merely a recording of ballads. The tune "Sunset" recorded by Cab Calloway really digs in and swings. Throughout the recording Carter demonstrates his versatility on woodwinds performing on soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones and contra bass and bass clarinets. Carter also provides ample evidence of his consummate musicianship with his brilliantly improvised ideas, tasteful phrasing and scorching instrumental technique. The recording is also not about only putting the spotlight on Carter. He often shares soloing duties with his sidemen. Bassist Peter Washington performs a particularly noteworthy solo on "(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone." There are the ballads though. In addition to the aforementioned "Strange Fruit," Carter, on baritone saxophone, brings a lush bluesy majesty to the Billy Strayhorn opus "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing."
Gardenias for Lady Day would be a keepsake for fans of James Carter or Billie Holiday. Braden and Carter’s unique and frightfully moving interpretation of "Strange Fruit" is enough reason to have this CD in a collection. Fortunately there is much more afforded the listener to make Gardenias for Lady Day very much a most welcome addition to any jazz aficionado’s collection.