While my own playing is mostly rooted in bebop stylings, I’ve done a good amount of dabbling in the world of earlier swing-era music. Over the last year I’ve had some great opportunities to perform alongside some of the most active and talented early-jazz stylists on the scene today (e.g. Evan Arntzen, Casey MacGill, Mike Davis). In these contexts I frequently find myself intuitively channeling the sound of the great Benny Carter.
Carter is usually referenced as being one of the prototypical players of his time, possessing an “old-school” sound with lots of vibrato. To me his use of vibrato is far from the most salient aspect of his playing. The simplest way I can think to describe his uniqueness would be to compare both Carter and his contemporary Johnny Hodges, and imagine how one would notate their improvisations at medium tempos. A Hodges solo would generally pose the most challenges due to his prevalent, highly nuanced vibrato and pitch-bending. Conversely a Carter solo would “look better on paper” as his expressive techniques are often secondary to the notes and rhythms. Basically, he plays a lot of notes; mostly eighth notes (or eighth note triplets), broken up with downbeat quarter notes, and a spare, tasteful use of syncopation.
He had the ability to outline harmony in a sophisticated, vertical way (à la Coleman Hawkins) but did so with a very fluid manner of articulation and phrasing (à la Lester Young). He always presents so much intelligent substance in a light, effortless way. His solo from 1940 on “I Can’t Believe You’re In Love With Me" is a masterpiece; a perfect synthesis of both vertical and horizontal approaches. This ability also made him one of the most innovative composers and arrangers of his time. "Symphony in Riffs"from 1933 is one of my all-time favorite big band pieces.
And I LOVE his ballad playing. Especially those graceful double-time flourishes that he could extend as long he wanted and still land on his feet. With respect to this kind of complex relationship to the pulse Carter is not dissimilar to Anthony Braxton or Eric Dolphy. “The Midnight Sun Will Never Set” from the album Further Definitions is worth checking out. Here’s the best example of his ballad playing that I could find on youtube: