James Carter may not yet be forty, but he possesses a degree of instrumental mastery which could easily be a lifetime's work. At different stages of this record, the versatile multi-instrumentalist plays tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones as well as flute and bass clarinet, all with equal power and precision.
This diverse approach to instrumental voicing is reflected in the range of material selected for Present Tense, Carter's first outing as a leader since 2005. From pacey post-bop inflections to silky Latin sensibilities and delicately nuanced ballad playing, it's all here. Producer Michael Cuscuna was keen to capture Carter's varied musical palette on a single disc, and by all evidence has done a fine job.
"Song of Delilah," an old favourite of Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, receives a modern hip-hop treatment from drummer Victor Lewis and bassist James Genus, and features Carter dueling with himself on two overdubbed tenor sax tracks. "Hymn of the Orient" is the record's unexpected gem, spotlighting Carter's baritone expertise and a series of lively interchanges with Lewis and Dwight Adams on trumpet. In terms of the leader's own writing, "Bro. Dolphy" is a composition of shifting moods and movements that climaxes with a furious face-off between trumpet and bass clarinet.
Carter has succeeded in assimilating the old school and simultaneously applying a contemporary personal touch to this great set of aptly chosen tunes. Trademark expressive, colorful solos are present for all to enjoy but despite occasional flamboyance, nothing ever sounds out of place: his improvisation is characterized by a wonderful coherence of thought, with ideas and motifs flowing effortlessly together in a way so many sax showmen struggle to grasp.
Present Tense may not go down in jazz history as a landmark recording, but it is an excellent CD which has done pleasing justice to the multi-dimensional talents of this modern master. James Carter's music is relentlessly fresh and enticing---remember the name.
Personnel: James Carter: flute, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone; Dwight Adams: trumpet, flugelhorn; D.D. Jackson: piano; Rodney Jones: guitar (4, 6, 9); James Genus: bass; Victor Lewis: drums; Eli Fountain: congas, percussion (4, 7, 9).