THE BENNY CARTER TRIO, consisting of Chris Neville on piano, Steve LaSpina on bass, and Steve Johns on drums, was Carter's last working rhythm section. Carter protégé Chris Neville was perhaps the saxophonist's closest musical associate during the last decade of his performing career. Carter first heard Neville when the pianist led the house trio that accompanied him at the Regattabar in Cambridge, MA, in 1988. Born in Boston in 1955, the classically trained artist had made a name for himself in his native New England, performing with such notables as Dizzy Gillespie, Al Cohn, Sonny Stitt, and Richie Cole during their swings through the region. Carter was immediately taken by the young pianist's dynamic and original style as a soloist and sensitivity as an accompanist. That engagement led to many tours worldwide and several recordings. Chris became a repository of Carter compositions and was instrumental in getting Carter to play more of his own pieces. Carter also helped produce (and played on) Neville's first recording as a leader, as well as his subsequent recordings.
When Carter was embarking upon his ambitious Songbook recording project for MusicMasters in 1995, he remembered hearing bassist Steve LaSpina on an album by pianist Dick Katz. After one rehearsal, Benny knew he need look no further. LaSpina, who was born in Texas in 1954, has played and recorded with a dazzling array of jazz stars, including Marian McPartland, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, and Jim Hall, and singers Peggy Lee and Sylvia Syms. The bassist is also a prolific composer and has recorded over 75 original pieces on his ten albums as a leader. He is also a noted educator and has been on the faculty of William Paterson University since 1999. As a bassist, LaSpina combines a virtuosic and absorbing solo style with rock-steady ensemble accompaniment.
Drummer Steve Johns has played with everyone from Jimmy Heath and Stanley Turrentine to Billy Taylor, and is currently a member of Sonny Fortune's quartet. Born in Boston in 1960, he is the nephew of saxophonist Jimmy Tyler, and studied early on with the legendary drummer/educator Alan Dawson. A noted educator himself, Johns is currently an adjunct instructor at Montclair State University. He joined Benny Carter's group in 1996 for a concert in Germany and remained with Carter for many tours and concerts over the next two years.
The Trio was recently reunited for the Benny Carter Centennial Project CD (Evening Star). Although they had not played together as a unit in a decade, they instantly recaptured the cohesive swing and harmonic sophistication that Carter so appreciated.