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James Carter Organ Trio: At The Crossroads

Troy Collins By

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A ubiquitous presence in the mid-1990s, saxophonist James Carter faded from the limelight when Atlantic Records disbanded its jazz department in 2000. Undeterred, Carter forged ahead, eventually signing with EmArcy Records in 2008, turning misfortune into opportunity. In addition to releasing Carter's engaging Present Tense the same year, the label also issued his long-awaited premiere of composer Roberto Sierra's "Concerto for Saxophones," featured on Caribbean Rhapsody (2011).

Picking up where Atlantic left off, EmArcy continues to encourage Carter's stylistic diversity on At The Crossroads, the first studio recording of his longstanding, Detroit-based organ trio with organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King Jr.. The group's genesis can be traced to 2001's Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (Warner Bros.), followed by Out of Nowhere (High Note, 2005), taped in concert at New York City's fabled Blue Note.

Commemorating its 10 year anniversary with a handful of guest artists, the album finds the trio expounding on a rich variety of covers and originals, veering from rousing blues vamps and angular funk workouts to uplifting gospel ruminations and romantic ballads. Among the assembled talent, guitarists Bruce Edwards and Brandon Ross appear most often, followed by earthy vocalist Miche Braden, whose bawdy innuendo enlivens "The Walking Blues" and "Ramblin' Blues," while sober readings of "Come Sunday" and "Tis The Old Ship Of Zion" exude austere spirituality.

Other pieces, like "Lettuce Toss Yo' Salad" and "The Hard Blues," explore vanguard territory beyond the scope of the typical organ trio. The former tune embodies King's wry title—a manic tear through blistering funk and bracing bop that frames Carter's searing altissimo fragments and overblown multiphonic screeds careening in unison with Gibbs swirling chords and King's relentless downbeats. The latter number, Julius Hemphill's classic blues epic, ebbs and flows amidst Carter and Ross' rhapsodic call and response, evoking the leader's 2000 avant-funk opus, Layin' In The Cut (Atlantic).

Live records generally elicit the most exploratory performances from improvisers; ironically, the constraints of the studio tend to focus rather than limit Carter's creativity. He exercises discipline and restraint throughout the session, tempering his notorious pyrotechnic bravado with a masterful sense of dynamics—tastefully integrating chromatic flurries, slap-tongue accents and tonal distortions into robust lyrical refrains that reconcile avant-garde techniques with old school virtuosity. Gibbs and King make a sympathetic rhythm section for Carter's inside-outside concept; their elastic, in-the-pocket grooves provide a solid foundation for the leader's capricious detours, keeping the proceedings rooted but malleable.

Carter's enthusiastic embrace of virtually every facet of the jazz tradition has salient antecedents in the pre-post-modernism of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Despite his eclecticism, the sincerity of Carter's conviction remains as irrefutable as Kirk's. Working a classic blues adage into an expansive program carefully balanced between the adventurous and the accessible, At The Crossroads is an aptly titled offering from one of today's most compelling artists.

Track Listing: Oh Gee; JC Off The Set; Aged Pain; The Walking Blues; My Whole Life Through; Walking The Dog; Lettuce Toss Yo Salad; Mysterio; Ramblin Blues; Come Sunday; Tis The Old Ship of Zion; The Hard Blues.

Personnel: James Carter: saxophones; Leonard King Jr.: drums, vocals (10); Gerard Gibbs: organ; Miche Braden: vocals (4, 11); Brandon Ross: guitar (4, 12); Bruce Edwards: guitar (1, 3, 6) Keyon Harrold: trumpet (4, 10); Vincent Chandler: trombone (4, 10); Eli Fountain: tambourines(10).

Title: At The Crossroads | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: EmArcy

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