Regina Carter: Improvising a Life in Jazz
Carter also found an excellent teacher in trumpet player Marcus Belgrave, a fixture on the Detroit jazz scene since the late 1950s who has performed and recorded with the likes of Ray Charles, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald and Wynton Marsalis. Belgrave was the original jazz faculty member at Oakland University, founded the Jazz Development Workshop in Detroit and was an important mentor for many young musicians in the area including Carter.
"I used to go over to Marcus' house with Rodney Whitaker and other young musicians almost every day, recalls carter. "If we were writing music, we could bring it in and play it so we could actually hear it. Marcus would give us pointers on it, and also teach us about improvisation. He used to get us on his gigs and he helped me to get a job working in the band of Lyman Woodard, who played organ and used to be the music director for Martha and the Vandellas.
Once Carter began to make a name for herself on the Detroit jazz scene, she joined the all-female quintet, Straight Ahead. The quintet gained a strong local following and signed with Atlantic Records, releasing two recordings that included Carter, Look Straight Ahead and Body and Soul But by 1991, Carter had decided to make the move from Detroit to New York City, and began to move in a different musical direction.
"I always felt if I really wanted to be serious about jazz, I had to live in New York or LA in the beginning stages of my career,' she explains. "The more I learned about music and the style of jazz I wanted to play, I knew New York was the place. So when an opportunity presented itself, I packed up a U-Haul and 21 hours later I was here. I didn't know how I was going to pay the rent or anything. I just came.
Carter began making calls to every musician she knew, and took whatever work she could find to make ends meet. She ended up working with the artists as diverse as Dolly Parton, Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige and doing a wide variety of radio and TV work as well. Carter joined the String trio of New York and also worked with the Soldier String Quartet, performing avant-garde compositions. She also tried to sit in on as many jam sessions as she could at the Blue Note and other clubs.
Atlantic signed her to a solo contract, and her first two recordings as a leader showed flashes of her brilliant technique and swinging style. But the production style heavy on pop-funk and smooth jazz elements made the recordings hit-and-miss affairs.
A major turning point in her career came with her appearance on Blood on the Fields, the Pulitzer Prize winning opus by Wynton Marsalis. Carter received strong critical acclaim for her work on the recording, and the subsequent tour gave provided her with a strong solo turn and one of the memorable highlights of the concert version of the work.
"Blood on the Fields really put me on the map in the jazz world, she explains. "After that, Verve offered me a recording contract, I got the chance to do have more freedom in the studio and I got to get out and tour with my own group in 1998 after my first Verve album, Rhythms of the Heart, was released.
Carter's 2000 follow-up recording, Motor City Moments, proved to be her strongest yet, blending unique interpretations of tunes by Motown greats such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye with compositions by jazz greats Thad Jones and Milt Jackson. Her latest recording, Paganini: After a Dream, documents her playing the famed classical legend's own 1840 violin, known as the "Cannon for its huge tone.
The success of her recent recordings has kept Carter on the road almost continuously over the past couple of years, and her visit to Columbia marks a tour swing designed to bring a fresh musical flavor to her music with a shakeup in band personnel.
"I love my regular group, but I've basically been working with them for the past six years, says Carter. "I think it's good to change who you're playing with every now and then, so I'm changing things up, bringing Xavier Davis on piano, Matthew Parrish on bass and Gilad on percussion. I don't even have a drummer picked out for sure, but I'm looking forward to working with the new musicians on this tour.
By the way, in case you were wondering Regina's mother is just fine with her daughter's choice of a career in jazz.
"The only thing she made sure I did after I came to New York and started to do well was to call me up and insist that I get health insurance right away, says Carter. "So she's very supportive of my music now.