I saw Regina Carter for the first time last summer ('99) at the Telluride Jazz Celebration. Telluride Jazz is known for its great players, and Carter was a star among stars. The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presented her this year as part of its Jazz Series, and I interviewed her in advance, by phone and broadcast it live on my program, Jazz Et Al on KSFR 90.7FM, I think at 9:30 a.m., because of her schedule.
She played with her band at St. Francis Auditorium, which is in the Fine Arts Museum in downtown Santa Fe, and was fabulous. Jazz has had its violinists, but Carter has revolutionized the instrument by making it hip, fresh and young. In her hands, it works so well with the percussion and bass; unusual for jazz, she has no wind instruments. At the end of the show she got the piano player up and they salsa danced while she played her violin. If that isn't revolutionary for that instrument, I don't know what is. When Regina plays the violin there is no way that it can sound "stuffy."
NN: I'm curious about the violin. There aren't many jazz violinists out there.
RC: There are probably more of us out here than most people know of; it's just that they haven't been recorded. I've been fortunate enough to meet them traveling around.
The violin is not thought to be a jazz instrument, or part of the jazz idiom. When a lot of people think of the violin, they think of European classical or country music. But in the day of Duke Ellington and before that there were jazz violinists. Then there seemed to be a long period where there weren't many.
Probably during the bebop period there were about one or two that people heard of. And then it disappeared from the scene. Then in the late '60s and early '70s you had some violinists. Then again they kind of disappeared. It seems like during the last eight years we're popping up. Unfortunately it's still not an instrument that people want to accept, especially the industry, in the jazz idiom. I always tell people it's not about the instrument, it's about the person playing it. If the language of the music is understood, any instrument can play any kind of music.
NN: How did you come to play the violin?
RC: My mom started me when I was four. She wanted my brothers and me to have a well-rounded education. We all took ballet, tap and piano. I took violin. I took piano first, but I was too young. I was two years old, too young for disciplined study. So my teacher said, "Let her play on her own." When I was four the same teacher called and said there was a school offering Suzuki violin. Suzuki is a Japanese method that teaches children to play the way children learn a language, basically by ear. Children, especially under the age of 12, have a great gift for this because the brain hasn't fully developed. If children can play a tune back immediately, then they're more psyched to learn to play the instrument.
NN: Tell me about your next CD, the one that will be released this fall on Verve.
RC: It's called Motor City Moments. All the music is either composed or inspired by Detroit musicians. I have my core band on the majority of the music, but I have a great pianist who is a Detroiter, Barry Harris, on two pieces. He's a legendary jazz pianist, and also a teacher. He's from the era of Tommy Flanagan and Thad Jones. He wrote a piece that I play on the record. It's been recorded only once before. We also do a Lucky Thompson piece together.
NN: Tell me about that.
RC: It's funny, because I had to do a whole lot of research for this project while I was on the road. I had to travel around with millions of CDs weighing me down.
Lucky Thompson is a great saxophonist that a lot of people don't know about, unfortunately. He could have been another Coltrane. I don't know what happened in his career. He was one of the first soprano saxophonists. For me, and I think a lot of people, he's got the most beautiful and natural talent on that instrument. I wanted to showcase his music, because a lot of people may not know about him.
I listened to a lot of great pieces of his, but the one we recorded, "Prelude," struck me. It fit my instrument, which was really important, and it was a lot of fun to play. It had a lot of tricky accents throughout, and that's always fun, when it kind of trips the band up and it takes us a minute to get it. Barry Harris recorded that piece with us. He knew Lucky Thompson personally, and said that Lucky was frustrated a lot of times and he would write music and put accents in to try to trip up other musicians, which gave us an insight as to how he was thinking when he wrote the piece.
NN: Who will be on stage with you Saturday night?
RC:I have Werner "Vana" Gierig on piano. He's from Germany, and has been with me from the beginning. He's got a CD out of his own called Small Regrets, and he's great pianist, classically trained, but also went to Berklee. On drums I have Alvester Garnett. He played with Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, James Carter, Cyrus Chestnut. He's a young musician, and really open and eager. On percussion I have Mayra Casales. She's from Cuba. I met her years ago when I was doing a project with a group out of Detroit. She's played with Carmen Lundy, John Lucien, Wayne Shorter, and is just a wonderful musician, a great balance for the band. And on bass I have Chris Lightcap, He's the newest member of the band. He's a great musician, and fits in really well.
The thing about all the musicians in the band is that they've all played in several different musical settings, which is really important for me, because I don't play one style of music. It's such a mixture, and it's so varied, that it's important that everybody is comfortable crossing those lines. We're planning on having a great time. We'll be doing some stuff off of the new CD, Motor City Moments and Rhythms of the Heart (Verve, 1999), as well as some stuff that we haven't even recorded yet. We just hope people will come out and support the music, and support us, and come with an open mind and ready to have a good time.
NN: What else is on your agenda for the summer?
RC: We'll be in Europe for three weeks before coming to Santa Fe. We arrive in Santa Fe the day before the show. When we get to Santa Fe we will have flown on four flights from Europe. We're doing a lot of the festivals, Scotland, Norway, Italy, France, and a bunch of other places. We'll be there for 18 days straight, all one-nighters, until we come to Santa Fe.
Natasha Nargis has produced and programmed Jazz Et Al (Fridays 9 a.m. to noon Mountain Time on KSFR, Santa Fe's public radio station) for three years. She wrote up a story based on this interview for the Albuquerque Journal, and also freelances for Thirsty Ear Magazine and KUNM, Albuquerque's NPR station. She writes further, "I suppose I could have included Regina's age . . . I know she is quite young, and that does make it relevant. . . . What struck me more than her age was her height. She has a huge stage persona, but after her show in Telluride we talked, and it was great to be able to talk to somebody eye to eye."