The Roar of James Carter

The Roar of James Carter

by Ron Scott
copyright © 2001 Ron Scott

The bass saxophone of James Carter roars with robust improvisations of fierce melodies like a bold lion strutting through his jazz domain. This prehistoric colossal horn may look threatening to some, but Carter, who started playing the instrument at age 14 relates, "No saxophonist has lived until they played a bass."

"There aren't too many people who are playing the bass saxophone in a frontman sense," says Carter. "You mostly see them in saxophone ensembles or in a symphony situation. Bringing back the bass saxophone into the forefront felt right because it really was the very first saxophone." While somewhat partial to the baritone sax, he adds, "That's cool, too, but the bass has something extra, it takes intestinal fortitude to set it off."

During a free performance with the Harlem School Of The Arts' Jazz Latin Band under the direction of Kelvyn Bell, Carter let the "dogs out" and set off his bass with the combustion of a rocket blasting out of Cape Canaveral. His solo improvisations on bass, tenor and soprano saxophones inspired the young band members to greater heights, especially the saxophonists watching in awe.

Carter's recent Blue Note gig with his Chasin' The Gypsy Band featuring Romero Lubambo, guitar; Marlene Rice, violin; Tony Cedras, accordion; Steve Kirby, bass, and Jamey Haddad, drums, played selections from his simultaneously released Atlantic CD's Layin' In the Cut and Chasin' The Gypsy. The live tunes were true to form with added free dancing rhythms and Carter's tantalizing improvisations. The band's namesake title was a high spirited romp with violin and drum solos chasing Carter's soprano saxophone melodies. "Artillerie Lourde" (Heavy Artillery), another uptempo tune, portrays a rare accordion appearance with Lubambo's neat strumming, intermittent violin solos and drums, all riding on the deep energetic phrasing of Carter's big bass sax. During Carter's live performances he dances during band solos. Very few jazz musicians today indulge in such merriment; he may be the first since Thelonious Monk's tenure. He says, "The music moves me to dance."

The late Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt inspired Chasin' The Gypsy. The first cut "Nuages" (Clouds) is a haunting melody hanging on a tango beat with percussionist Cyro Baptista adding castanets and shakers, an accordion mix from Charlie Giordano and Carter's bellowing bass saxophone. Regina Carter, violinist, plays throughout the album and particularly shines on "I'll Never Be The Same." Drummer Joey Baron and bassist Steve Kirby maintain a continuous swing while Romero Lubambo's nylon string guitar, and Jay Berliner's steel string guitar, keep that Gypsy serenade groove. On other tracks Carter breaks out his soprano, tenor and a saxophone seldom heard of today called an F mezzo. The Detroit native explained, "They were originally made to compete with the soprano and alto saxophones -- during the '20's there were lots of these around. When the Depression hit, instrument compan ies discontinued them for the more popular altos, tenors and baritones that were being used by big bands." Originally, Carter was set to record the track "Oriental Shuffle" playing the soprano saxophone "but it didn't blend with the other instruments so I tried the F mezzo and it was a perfect blend with the violin. It screams for bebop and has an in-your-face tone."

Carter noted, smiling, "I had been listening to the Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli combination since '83 even though I didn't know it." The project took sail a few years ago when Carter was touring with Kathleen Battle. He explained, "During sound checks I started playing "Nuages," which I remembered from the radio back home. Romero Lubambo heard me and started playing along on guitar and Cyro Baptista picked up the rhythm and we were off. Later someone said we should do something with this and that was the beginning of our group." Although four of the nine tracks are Reinhardt originals, Carter confirms it's not a tribute. He's mixed the romanticism of Gypsy essence with his own jazz interpretation.

The two albums were released simultaneously because "I wanted to do something different and shake things up," stated Carter. Layin' In the Cut is all electric music, something that jazz purists will probably reject, which is their loss. Carter's selection of New York City musicians include labelmate guitarist Marc Ribot, along with Philadelphians bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and drummer G. Calvin Weston, both known for their work with Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer. He also tapped guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, who has worked with Ronald Shannon Jackson, founder of the Decoding Society and an alumnus of Coleman's Prime Time Ensemble. This nucleus has created a free jazz style with a solid funk groove. All seven songs are credited to the group. Johnson's composition "Terminal B" is buck-wild. Carter's "There's a Paddle" is reminiscent of Miles Davis' "On the Corner," with added crazy improvisations of Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The album closes with Carter's "GP," a rather subdued piece busting with crazy funk rhythms. Carter stated, "Having an electric band is living out a fantasy. I'm always singing and humming Funkadelic stuff." His older brother played with George Clinton's legendary funksters.

Carter's teenage summers were spent playing saxophone at the Blue Lake Arts Camp in Michigan. At age 17, Wynton Marsalis invited him to play a number of dates with his quintet. In 1988 he was invited to make his New York City debut with the late Lester Bowie's New York Organ Ensemble. Arriving in the Big Apple in 1990, he continued performing with Bowie as well as Julius Hemphill's saxophone sextet, vocalist Betty Carter and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, among others. Carter's 1994 Atlantic debut The Real Quietstorm is a ballad-infused collection oozing with romance and candle-lit evenings. This one includes the arsenal of Carter's bass clarinet, bass flute and baritone saxophone. As with John Coltrane's Ballads, multiple listenings to it is a pleasant obligation.

Lester Bowie said of Carter, "He's the tenor player of the future. I haven't heard anyone who can touch him." Ken Burns' Jazz documentary highlighted him as one of the young rising musicians. Is he feeling any pressure? Carter humbly says, "The recognition is great but the only pressure is what comes out of the horn."

Ron Scott is a freelance writer and jazz columnist for the Amsterdam News.

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