Betty Carter hit retirement age this year; should we think that she’s mellowed? (Sure, in the same way you should feel free to pet a tigress you think has gone soft.) She still sings the slowest ballads of the century, with elastic phrasing that lags several measures (not mere beats) behind the rhythm, and then scats at tempi that scare some horn players; either way, her exaggerated, expressionistic, and often breathtaking style remains daring almost 30 years after she perfected it. Each song, whether a standard or one of her own quite original compositions, serves as an immediate launchpad for her extravagant melodic paraphrases; if you didn’t know the tune going in, you probably won’t know it after hearing Betty Carter’s version. (Carter has said, “There is no way I can approach a song and not change it”; a recent album carried the knowing title It’s Not About the Melody.) This has led to complaints that Carter sings without discipline or stylistic control, but nothing could be further from the truth–or, for that matter, further from the point. She has uniquely incorporated the careening freedom brought to the music by instrumentalists in the 60s, in much the way that Ella Fitzgerald matched riffs with the hornmen of the 30s and Sarah Vaughan held her own with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the 40s. After the death of Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers served as a virtual farm system for major-league jazz talent, Carter gained even more recognition for her tutelage of younger sidemen–among modern stars, the list includes pianists Benny Green and Stephen Scott, drummers Gregory Hutchinson and Winard Harper, and the Chicago trumpeter Pevin Everett–and part of the lure always lies in hearing the phenoms who have enough humility and potential to last more than a week in her band. Whoever they are, you can count on Carter rising up like a force of nature and pulling them along in her irresistible artistic wake. Tuesday through next Sunday, October 15, Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan; 427-4846.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Barboza.