The Critics: Betty Carter's brilliant career: from Charlie Parker to Ronnie Scott's

"I'm ba-ack," croons Betty Carter, as if calling "Honey, I'm home." Mellow, honeyed tones, however, are just one part of Carter's repertoire, which includes joyful shouts, mournful cries and, evoking the pain of loss, the siren of a police car heading for a crash. For 50 years a vocalist with the bands of, among others, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles and Dizzy Gillespie, Carter is not a singer for those whose theme song is Rodgers and Hart's "I Like to Recognise the Tune". That activity is only intermittently possible with Carter, who pulls apart the melody and fashions it into a vehicle for the expression of raw emotion and fine technique. At times this can be irritating, as when she throws her head back and keens in an overly stylised demonstration of agony. But that is just one manifestation of Carter's abundant physical and mental energy, as she brings new life to tired standards or produces, from her harmonica-shaped mouth, sounds nearly as deep as Louis Armstrong's.

Looking a generation younger than any other 66-year-old lady you know, Carter has a force and presence that make most cabaret singers look even more ridiculous than they do already. When she jabs the air or swings her butt, the gesture isn't mere decoration but part of the hard work of pushing the notes where she wants them to go. Carter strides around the stage as she performs, warm and gregarious without being pushy. Her communication with her musicians is as intense as with the audience - the highlight of the evening at Ronnie Scott's is her duet with bass player Vashon Johnson on "Sometimes I'm Happy". This ticky-tacky Vincent Youmans song of the 1920s with saccharine, easily discarded lyrics is an old favourite of jazz musicians bent on deconstruction, if not demolition. Ringing the changes on it, Carter actually makes it sound emotionally complex, as she and the bass become two instruments having an intelligent conversation.

Giving us a virtuoso display of the scat-singing she is known for, Carter opens with a shimmering number that only gradually reveals itself as "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" - what we have been hearing is clearly the strange language of this place beyond the stars. Paying tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Carter does the first song she recorded, "A Tisket, A Tasket" - but, as she says, "This is not an imitation, this is my concept." Instead of reproducing Fitzgerald's crystalline impishness, Carter, while keeping the mockery, colours the tune light blue. As pianist Travis Shook weaves complex patterns of despair, Carter wails, "I'm feelin' bad, I'm feelin' sad about a basket." This gives way to a prolonged a capella scat expressive of her anxiety over the gravity of this loss.

Even deep-dyed tune-spotters, along with listeners who think of song lyrics as a test of acting ability, will probably appreciate Carter's way with such songs as "But Beautiful", the Bing Crosby number on the vagaries of love, which she makes oracular, yet cosy; or "I Should Care", which she opens by running the first two lines together in an affectingly understated expression of false bravado. If they don't, however, this tough, cheerful artist is not likely to be bothered. Introducing a number about the complications of a 30-year marriage, she says: "You may like it, and you may not. That's life."