Multi-reedist James Carter has been steadily chugging along as a master of many instruments and styles since his auspicious recording debut in the early '90s, often operating under the radar while maintaining a consistent commitment to quality performances.
With the release of Present Tense, Carter lets us know exactly where he's at with a well-paced collection of lyrical and concise statements, harvesting a deep sense of swing and letting his curious imagination roam free with the assistance of a killer band.
The tunes, most of which are in the 4 to 7-minute range, offer a concentrated and disciplined approach. "Rapid Shave" is an old-fashioned swinger taken at a bright tempo, with Carter's blazing baritone sax edged by pianist D.D. Jackson's pleasingly percussive and heavy-handed playing, displaying the influence of Don Pullen's abstract yet blues-based ideas. The similarly up-tempo bop of Gigi Gryce's "Hymn of the Orient" showcases a band that is totally on point with the angular arrangement, wasting no time for frills as they hit it, then quit it with the flourish of a sweet rubato coda.
Highlights of the set include two of the leader's features on bass clarinet. "Bro. Dolphy" expresses Carter's admiration for Eric Dolphy's singular influence on the instrument in question. The tightly-wound bop head evolves into an elegant ballad, before getting loose with an impressionistic spaciousness that references Dolphy's classic Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964). And like Dolphy, Carter's bass clarinet sound is velvety smooth, emotionally expressive and technically agile.
The same goes for "Shadowy Sands," the Jimmy Jones-composed tune that was a rare bass clarinet feature for Ellingtonian star Harry Carney back in the day. An alternating groove cushions Carter's fluid phrasing of the melody line, expertly shadowed by Dwight Adams' sublime trumpet sound, as it segues from a languid Latin beat to a tight shuffle.
The album boasts a few choice cuts on the mellow tip as well, with a version of Django Reinhardt's "Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure" that finds Carter offering some romance on the soprano, backed by Jackson's super-classy keys. The Spanish bolero-style beat of "Sussa Nita" is underscored by the twinkling harmonics of guest guitarist Rodney Jones, whose solo gives props to the street sophistication of players like Kenny Burrell and Melvin Sparks, while percussionist Eli Fountain adds a welcome touch of chiming colors. And the album-closer "Tenderly" is like a flawless piece of a film noir soundtrack, evoking a late-night taxi ride uptown, or some humid summertime porch reverie.
Carter's eclectic choices continue on a hip-hop-inflected "Song of Delilah," with some fun simultaneous soloing between darting sax and trumpet; and a welcome revival of the little-known "Dodo's Bounce," a bebop-era chestnut from the underrated pianist Dodo Marmarosa that showcases Carter's flute, Adams' muted tone and the tasty brushes of drummer Victor Lewis.
This solid, straight-ahead outing sounds both "old-timey" (in the best sense), with deep roots in blues and swing; and exploratory, never sacrificing Carter's personal approach, while maintaining his place in the jazz tradition.
Personnel: James Carter: flute, bass clarinet, soprano sax, tenor sax, baritone sax; Dwight Adams: trumpet, flugelhorn; D.D. Jackson: piano; James Genus: bass; Victor Lewis: drums; Rodney Jones: guitar (4, 6, 9); Eli Fountain: congas, percussion (4, 7, 9).