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James Carter: Something Old, Something New

By Published: August 4, 2008
Carter's own exposure to tradition came from listening to his mother sing along to the radio, and from leafing through the albums he found in the family home. Spirited by the images on the albums' covers, he'd sneak into the room of a musician lodging with the family and pose with the alto sax he found there.

James Carter Getting caught with the horn red-handed exposed Carter's love for the instrument, and in a sense kick-started his musical education. But after enduring the grade school band for a while, Carter felt his love of jazz was not being supported and was on the verge of putting down the sax for good. Thankfully, his older brother Kevin stepped in and introduced him to a teacher named Donald Washington, a man Carter came to regard as a surrogate father, and still affectionately refers to as "Pops." Carter says Washington taught him "basically for the love of it," charging only $5 for two- to three-hour lessons.

"First off, when I went to his house," Carter recalls, "and saw—smelt—just the art that was in the air, and then went downstairs and saw the saxophones and the clarinets on the stand... It was like a parallel universe from what was going on at our house. I was in awe. I think environment definitely plays a roll in the development of the individual."

Washington was "providing the necessary tools and encouragement" that Carter feels every young musician needs.

"Particularly the encouragement is necessary—quite instrumental."

He describes the education he received from Washington as "well-rounded." In addition to the one-on-one instruction, he also borrowed books and albums (including Dolphy's Prestige releases) from Washington, and watched PBS's From Jump Street with host Oscar Brown Jr. It was all "part of the lesson," Carter says, and set the archetype for how he himself would later conduct private lessons.

But it was the soul and conviction he heard in Washington's playing that notched the first profound influence on Carter's own style of performance. In addition, the multi-instrumentalism in Washington's attack, echoed by recording artists like Dolphy and left open for Carter to explore in his own playing (thanks to his sympathetic middle school teacher Valerie Turner), freed Carter at an early age from the notion of a single rail.

"What interested me when hearing multi-instrumentalists was that you could hear the different personalities of an individual coming through the different instruments," Carter explains. "It was like a miniature orchestra all to themselves. Like the way Duke looks at [Ben] Webster and writes certain things, or hears certain things, for that particular instrument. There are certain things that a 'pit bull' can do that a tenor or soprano or whatever can't. And you wind up cross-pollinating, cross-influencing each other, and hopefully the possibilities are infinite as far as being able to touch an individual [listener]."

"I just try to keep everything simple, saying, 'Look, this is the woodwind family.' As opposed to, 'This is the sax, this is the flute, this is the clarinet...' And play within those parameters, keep the parameters entirely in my hands. Once it's established, it's a very hip thing to do. Not only financial-wise, by being able to play more than one instrument, but also just [by having] more knowledge, and another avenue of expression within the same family."

Lately, Carter, who identified himself in the June 2008 issue of Jazz Times as a "frustrated guitarist," has dropped hints that the family might be expanding.

"I'm threatening to get on 'em," he says (perhaps jokingly) in reference to the two guitars he owns. He then launches into a hilarious imitation of the grumblings he always gets in response from brother Kevin, the guitarist. Which makes you think—for now, at least—the six string will remain out of Carter's public arsenal.

James Carter He says it's nothing more than the obvious that turns him on about the electric guitar: the electricity, "the sense that it's being powered."

"The feeling you get when you hear 'Still Raining' and 'Hear My Train a Coming' by [Jimi] Hendrix, the stuff from Charlie Christian like 'Solo Flight,'" muses Carter. "Man! There's a sort of air in there that's charged. I like that energy. And for a whole lot of people who consider it unprofessional to try and do that on a saxophone—boop 'em."

You don't have to talk with Carter long to know how he feels about conformity. His albums are labeled with the mantra "peace and forward motion," not "sleep and play as you're told." He sees little value in staying put.

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