“Look what I got!” screams the title of Betty Carter’s most recent album. She’s got her first major record contract in nearly 30 years; the CD reissue of several albums from her own Bet-Car label; an appearance on big-time TV (the Cosby show, this past Thanksgiving); and an exaggerated, expressionistic, and often breathtaking style that remains daring after all this time. She 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. Each song, whether a standard or one of her own quite original compositions, serves as an immediate launchpad for her often extravagant melodic paraphrases; if you didn’t know the tune going in, you probably won’t know it after hearing Betty Carter’s version. Some critics have complained that Carter sings without discipline or stylistic control; the LA Times’s Leonard Feather dismssed her style as a grab bag of affectations elevated to a position of stature by east-coast critics (which perhaps tells us more about Mr. Feather than Ms. Carter). But Carter 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. Tonight, Saturday, and Wednesday through next Saturday, January 21, Ruggles, 1633 N. Halsted; 988-9000.

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