Think of Django Reinhardt and you probably think of delicate phrasing, swing, music that fits the 1930s, maybe even the gypsy's sweet couplings with violin legend Stephane Grappelli. There were moments of swing at The Egg, that exquisite hall in Albany, NY, on January 17, when sax firebrand James Carter blew into town with his Chasin' the Gypsy Band.
But 1930s it was not.
Carter turned the music inside out at times and toned it down at others with a band that knew how to handle the tunes. But when Carter soloed, it was with the blaring attack one has come to expect from the 33-year-old Detroit native.
Carter is a gunslinger with sax in hand and reed in mouth. He can be melodious, he can hold back. But ultimately, he will stretch the limits of the instrument and show you just how many sounds can really come out of it. Double tonguing, dual tones, squeaks, squawks, bellows, balks. He makes every instrument talk – and then some.
Carter put out his Chasin' the Gypsy album over two years ago, but he still likes to play the music and his band was very solid. They knew how to handle the music, giving the songs polish, but at the same helping take them where Carter would lead. Bassist Steve Kirby and guitarist Romero Lumbado played on the recording. Drummer Leonard King had the flexibility to cover all the twists and turns Carter called for. Peter Soave was superb on the cumbersome accordion and bandoneon and Marlene Rice was stellar on violin.
"Passionette" started off the night with just Carter on soprano sax gently playing with the melody over the top of simple a simple rhythm played by King on a bongo drum. They were joined by accordion, then the band hit a swing stride. Then more. Faster. Carter was off on a raucous improvisation playing the straight horn as it is rarely heard, pushed to its limits. Shrieks and squeals, cascades of notes. Boisterous and irreverent. But within the music. (It evoked a silent wish that Kenny G was in the audience, in the chance that upon being exposed to the torrent of sound he would take his soprano to the nearby Hudson River and toss it in.)
"Oblivion" began with accordion and its cousin, bandoneon, from the capable hands of Soave that evoked the '30s. Carter gave way to the soulful and swinging Rice, who showed a good sense of swing and sensibility throughout the evening. Switching to tenor sax on " Le Derniere Berquere," Carter displayed his Ben Webster-like vibrato and sensuous ballad phrasing at the start, but then the gunslinger kicked in the swinging saloon doors and it was time to grab the bottom of your seat on a blistering improvisation that veered in directions like a light beam in a room full of mirrors.
Carter's taken critical heat for being too demonstrative, flexing his chops too much. But it's part of his style. It's him. He doesn't just play chord changes and nod and step aside. It's going to be a mix of things. Dolphy and Webster. Hawkins and Trane. Things that saxophone's aren't normally asked to do are done. But there's also a good bit of soul, humor, adventure and excitement.
Nearly all the tunes — "Oriental Shuffle," "Chasin' the Gypsy," Heavy Artillery," “Manoir de Me Reves/Django’s Castle” — contained elements of that adventuresome spirit, that unruly aspect. He takes the music apart and puts it back together each time. He can leave you breathless and exhilarated; he can shock you. Some may think it's a bit too much. But that's James Carter. He gives it his all and, for better or worse, he's not playing like anyone else out there. And he’s workin’ hard.
It may not be melodic many times (though he can certainly improvise sweet melodies). He’s trying to create things outside the norm and he's not afraid to strut his CONSIDERABLE stuff. If you're chasin' James Carter, good luck catching him.
Thank whatever god you'd like to thank for him.
2000 AAJ Interview
1996 AAJ Interview