Friday, October 13, 2006

Thelma Carpenter Seems Like Old Times

Seems Like Old Times
Thelma Carpenter
Sepia Records (1080)

Despite performing with Count Basie and Duke Ellington, there is no entry for Thelma Carpenter in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (ed. Kernfeld, ’94 edition). It’s not as if she simply disappeared after the big band era, having appeared in films like The Wiz and The Cotton Club. Finally, many of her sides are getting a well deserved digital life on Seems Like Old Times, which one hopes will lead to more recognition for Carpenter.

Unfortunately, Carpenter did not record with Ellington and her time with Basie went largely undocumented due to a WWII era recording ban. However, their recording of “I Didn’t Know About You” survives, showing her fitting nicely into the Basie style, delivering the sentimental lyrics with a touch of playfulness.

Carpenter was the featured vocalist with Teddy Wilson’s short-lived Orchestra, so comparisons to Billie Holiday are to be expected. (She even participated in American Masters' Long Night of Lady Day seen on PBS in 1986.) Like Holiday, Carpenter did not necessarily have the widest range, but was a wonderful interpreter of lyrics with a lovely clear voice, and was comfortable at any tempo. “Love Grows On the White Oak Tree” is upbeat swinger and “This is the Moment” is a more romantic number, but on both she is in perfect sync with the Wilson band.

Carpenter also performed with a band led by Coleman Hawkins, who provides one of the best solos in the collection on “She’s Funny That Way.” Also notable are the tasteful piano solos from the under-appreciated Herman Chittison, whose trio backed Carpenter as she caressed the lyrics to “I Should Care” and “All of My Life.”

On two tracks, Carpenter is backed by the Ames Brothers, then performing as the Amory Brothers. One is an appropriately spirited take on “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho,” on which Carpenter swings the band something fierce. The other is the odd “American Lullabye,” something of a nocturne for the hectic modern American life: “Daddy is down at his stockbroker’s office, a-keeping the wolf from the door.” The song is not exactly a standard, but it is a good vehicle for Carpenter's voice.

Carpenter had early success on Broadway, and starred in Hello Dolly and Pippin late in her career. Not surprisingly, she nicely handles the dramatic aspects of show tunes like “I’m Just Wild About Harry” and “Gypsy Blues,” keeping the back-and-forth with Avon Long from sounding too stagey, while supported by another legendary bandleader, Eubie Blake.

Seems Like Old Times provides a wealth of swinging vocals, backed by the likes of Wilson, Basie, Hawkins, Blake, and Luther Henderson. It is a real discovery. Hopefully one of the Grove editors will discover it before their next edition is published.