Reconciling the improvisational nature of jazz with the semi-rigid confines of classical constructs like the concerto has never been easy. While concertos are meant to highlight a soloist, making this format seem like a perfect home in which a jazz instrumentalist can dwell, the oft-scripted nature of all parts involved, including the solo, works against one of the key principles in jazz: spontaneous composition. While James Carter's collaboration with composer Roberto Sierra should rightly be hailed for all of the musical wonders contained within, the greatest achievement here is the inclusion of off-the-cuff elements within an intricately composed musical housing.
Sierra says he "composed the work in such a way that, at certain points in the scoreincluding the cadenzasoutlets for extemporization are provided," ensuring Carter has the improvisational space he so richly deserves, but the composer's writing occasionally makes it difficult to discern what may be a tough written passage or an on-the-spot artistic decision of Carter's choosing. Sierra wrote for Carter and his style, and Carter developed his own ideas based on what Sierra provided, making this as true a collaboration as has existed in the melding of classical and jazz elements.
The Concerto opens with "Ritmico," which seems to fuse Stravinsky-ian ideals with folkloric elements of Sierra's native Puerto Rico. While this number gets the heart racing, "Tender" causes the heart to break. Sierra creates a rich harmonic ambrosia of consonance and Carter's soprano sings with clarity and beauty. His tone is rich across the entire range of the horn and his control up top is phenomenal. "PlayfulFast (With Swing)" opens on a modern classical stage, moves toward woozy swing, and eventually arrives at a bluesy, boogaloo-with-orchestra section of music.
Carter uses "Tenor Interlude" as a palette cleanser between the "Concerto For Saxophones And Orchestra" and "Caribbean Rhapsody." "Soprano Interlude" closes the album, but the real treat comes in the middle. "Caribbean Rhapsody" opens with an overly refined aura, in striking contrast to the fun, rhythmically engaging work that's usually associated with the Caribbean, but Carter-and-strings eventually arrive at that sought-after destination. Carter and his cousin, jazz violin virtuoso Regina Carter, engage in terrific, tangled polyphony, trading solos back and forth over a vibrant bottom provided by bassist Kenny Davis and the rest of the Akua Dixon String Quintet.
While works of such a grand nature rarely make it to the concert hall for more than a few performances, having this on record is more important than the possibility of seeing it live. Caribbean Rhapsody speaks to the potential of collaboration when two individuals from different ends of the spectrum meet and create art with mutual respect, while always keeping the music in mind.
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