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A gruff, helter-skelter virtuoso such as James Carter is the last musician you’d expect to worship at the altar of Billie Holiday. True, mid-’90s Carter efforts such as Jurassic Classics and The Real Quiet Storm showed an encyclopedic grasp of jazz history and a broad emotional range—as well as an astonishing mastery of the entire saxophone family and several clarinets. But whereas Holiday used her pinched, aching soprano to shape lyrics into epigrams of pain and vulnerability, such reserve hasn’t usually been in Carter’s vocabulary. His swashbuckling tone often explodes into mayhem—solos overstuffed with blood-curdling shrieks, slap-tongue pops, abrasive squawks, and nearly every other cliché in the avant-garde-jazz-sax trick bag. Carter’s natural ferocity seems the antithesis of Holiday’s finesse—which is exactly why his new Gardenias for Lady Day isn’t just another tribute album.

Put simply, Carter has grown up and into this project. His 2000 album Chasin’ the Gypsy, an equally unlikely but glowing homage to the legendary French-Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, was the first Carter disc on which the improvisations were as much brain as brawn—a balance of self-control and abandonment that also distinguishes much of Gardenias. It was a crucial development: Carter has always had a romantic heart, though he has often hidden it under overwrought playing and smug posturing. It’s no coincidence that Robert Altman chose Carter to play stylish ’40s saxophonist Ben Webster in 1996’s Kansas City—or that Carter often dons a zoot suit and fedora for concerts.

Carter also holds his tenor across his body in a manner that conspicuously recalls Lester Young. But although Young played alongside Lady Day, Gardenias reveals that Carter is less interested in aping Prez’s feather-light tone than he is in matching Young’s sensuality and mystique. For instance, Carter turns Budd Johnson’s stargazing ballad “(I Wonder) Where Our Love Has Gone”—one of the least-known tunes in Holiday’s repertoire—into a suspense-packed marvel. His tenor imbues the melody with a threatening, hot-blooded virility, but he never goes berserk. Instead, he keeps the track constantly on edge in a performance that amounts to a scintillating display of sustained ecstasy.

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Carter conjures a similar feel on baritone with his swaggering makeover of “I’m in a Low Down Groove,” delving deeply into the tune’s sexy melody to uncover all its roguish beauty. Thanks to overdubs, Carter accompanies himself on tenor and F-mezzo saxes, creating opulently harmonic autoduets. In lesser hands, it’s a trick that might sound not only gimmicky, but also self-indulgent. Here, however, the result is both arousing and elegant.

Another whimsical aspect to Gardenias is Carter’s curious song selection. Because only half the cuts are actually from Holiday’s repertoire, the disc is less a conventional tribute than a sublime speculation. Carter writes in the press kit that he included signature songs by Holiday’s contemporaries—Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” Don Byas’ “Gloria,” Victor Herbert’s “Indian Summer,” Cab Calloway’s “Sunset”—under the theory that, had Lady Day lived longer, she would have eventually sung them, drawn to their irresistible melodicism. Indeed, when Carter uncoils the billowing, swing-inflected “Gloria” or the fetching, flamenco-influenced “Sunset,” you can easily hear a space for Holiday to inject her blend of sassy blues and silken melancholy.

Starry-eyed string arrangements and a supple rhythm section superbly underscore Gardenias’ sepia-toned allure. Bassist and composer Greg Cohen, best known for his work with John Zorn and Tom Waits, shares string-arrangement and conducting duties with Cassius Richmond, one of Carter’s old cohorts from his hometown Detroit. For the rhythm section, Carter recruited a dream team of sorts: vastly underrated veteran pianist John Hicks, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Victor Lewis. Though these players bolster both the strings and Carter’s own playing, the rhythm section is in one way shamefully underused: Carter never lets his troop engage him in any noteworthy dialogue, although their brief asides are never less than delightful. In fact, except for singer Miche Braden’s leads on “Strange Fruit” and “More Than You Know,” Carter’s extroverted playing hogs much of the spotlight.

Nonetheless, Gardenias’ only truly glaring miscalculation is its treatment of “Strange Fruit,” a song that has elicited some of the most overwrought, boneheaded interpretations in jazz—the maudlin versions by trumpeters Lester Bowie and Russell Gunn come readily to mind. Carter, unfortunately, follows suit: Instead of relying on Lewis Allen’s evocative lyrics, he has Braden overdramatize the verses amid Cohen’s dank, melodramatic arrangement—which even includes a wind machine. Carter shreds through the melody maniacally, climaxing with a violent convulsion of a solo that’s highlighted by ear-splitting screams, dissonant wails, and deathly gurgles.

Those sounds are vintage Carter, perhaps, but they come across as cheap and histrionic—an effect emphasized by the restraint demonstrated elsewhere on the album. Overall, Gardenias for Lady Day is a significant moment in Carter’s developing maturity: He’s still a thrilling, lovable brute of a saxophonist, but he’s also learning that white-hot intensity doesn’t always warm the heart. CP