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James Carter: Something Old, Something New

By Published: August 4, 2008
"If that were the case, I don't think the arts, or people in general, would be as advanced as they are now," he argues, citing the case of Ben Webster rushing Charlie Parker on stage to tell Bird how the tenor should—and should not—be played. It's stories like that one that fuel Carter's own dogged perseverance in the face of the criticism that he too often bucks tradition. He recalls how his rendition of "Strange Fruit" on Gardenias was dubbed "over the top" by some.

"Everybody knows what 'Strange Fruit' was about," he says. "There is no Muzak version of that. Come on." Taking nothing away from the Holiday version, Carter says he felt it necessary, in light of the song's subject matter, "to show what angst sonically can represent."

His ability to make music is an endowment from the Creator, Carter explains in a voice that doesn't attempt to mask the annoyance he feels when told how he should and should not go about making that music.

"If it's not your cup of tea, fine. Step aside and let somebody else sip from the cup. It doesn't mean there's poison in it just because you don't dig it, or don't understand it at a particular time. I feel that a whole lot of that comes about as a result of the individual not being comfortable within themselves."

As Carter sees it, this is often the trouble with how listeners react to electric instruments. And he's dismayed that there are still discussions in the new millenium about the validity of trying to replicate an electric sound on an acoustic instrument.

James Carter

"Everybody that's come up within the last half of the 20th century knows the power of an electric guitar, the power of an organ," he contends. And he believes it's only natural that someone who enjoys that power would want to emulate it in some way.

"If the Creator gives you the ear, the intestinal fortitude, the equipment to make these things come to pass, then it's your duty to make it happen."

Equipment in particular, he feels, plays an important role. If the equipment isn't up to par it's only going to result in the musician's frustration. It's this belief that led him to the Lawton mouthpiece.

"[Geoff Lawton] made a heck of a mouthpiece during his lifetime," says Carter, who first fit the late Englishman's handiwork onto his baritone sax, then brought it home to the rest of the saxophones in his family. Not having to go back and forth, changing embouchure positions, eases the transition from one horn to the next, Carter explains, and helps facilitate his multi-instrumentalism.

"I have wide setups. Having wider setups promotes higher harmonics and more volume. [From there] it's just about being able to harness it. Just like it is with electricity. You got to be able to harness it."

Bringing the discussion back to the Creator, Carter says the opportunity to work with legendary producer and co-founder of Mosaic Records Michael Cuscuna, who produced Present Tense, was like a chronic headache sufferer's chance "to meet Joseph Bayer, or whatever the cat's name is."

Cuscuna was invaluable for his tune selections, Carter notes, but says he hesitated initially when Cuscuna brought him "Rapid Shave," the number that leads off the new record. Carter thought it might be difficult to bring something to the tune Stanley Turrentine and Shirley Scott had not. But then he hit on the idea of playing it with his baritone sax.

"Once again, getting back into the multi-instrumentalism thing," Carter says. "Just being able to have that option. You have it as a variable to help make [the tune] your own. And give it that kind of relevancy that you hear and you want others to hear through you. It's very important."

Festival International de Jazz de Montreal / James Carter / Curtis Taylor James Carter (l) with Curtis Taylor (r) - 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival

Cuscuna's honesty and patience from the control booth was another key element to the record's success, Carter feels. Cuscuna wasn't a dictator, but rather gave mild suggestions like, "'I think we can give that another stab, what do you think?'" when he felt a tune wasn't all it could be.

"There was a dialogue happening. And just [his] watching the sensitivity amongst the other cats while we were in the studio. It was refreshing. And it was the beginning of what I would eventually see out of Universal and Emarcy as a whole, which kind of reminded me of the early days of Atlantic, as far as the family of people ... within the label. It's pretty cool."

"Just like with anything else, there's got to be a foundation to build things on," Carter says. It's a response to a question about his affinity for exploring the lower tonal range of the saxophone. But it's also a statement that seems to sum up his approach to music in general: "Just having a foundation to soar from and to come back to or leave all together."

Selected Discography

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