James Carter: Something Old, Something New

Matt Marshall By

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I just try to keep everything simple, saying, 'Look, this is the woodwind family.' As opposed to, 'This is the sax, this is the flute, this is the clarinet...'
James CarterMulti-instrumentalist James Carter has always had eclectic tastes. That was evident on his debut, JC on the Set (Columbia, 1994), where the squeaks and blips linked him to the avant camp of Eric Dolphy and the tenor swoons nestled him comfortably within the traditional velvet of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.

Subsequent releases found him venturing further along each of those paths individually, splitting the new and the traditional like Proust taking Swann's Way (1913) and The Guermantes Way/ (1921) separately so as to conquer and know the full character of each. Soon entire James Carter projects were devoted to exploring the work of a single artist—Django Reinhardt on Chasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic, 2000), Billie Holiday with Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia/Sony, 2003) and rock band Pavement for Gold Sounds(Brown Brothers, 2005).

Carter's Present Tense (Emarcy, 2008) shows him bringing it all back home. There's a Reinhardt cover ("Pour Que Ma Vie Memeure"), an ode to Dolphy ("Bro. Dolphy") and a tune purportedly delivered to Carter in a dream by Lady Day herself ("Sussa Nita"). The Motown jump of his early records also makes a strong comeback.

Yet amidst any return-to-form talk, Carter has also made much of the increased lyricism in his playing. Does that mean the record serves both as a summation of his career to this point and a launching off into something new?

"Yeah, I would definitely say that, on both ends," Carter acknowledges via phone from his home in Detroit. But the spark of the new, he says, has always been part of his game.

"[I'm] not only willing to deal with other areas, but other people and personnel as well. It seems I have a ten-year itch regarding that, because back in '98 ... with In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic), that was the first signal that I had personnel changes. It's a good thing. The nuances, the different energies, and just being able to play with [new] people."

"At the same time ... you got to deal with the [music's] nucleus," he says. "I've always been a fan of people like Duke Ellington and [Count] Basie—those nucleuses that have been together for years, and the longevity and how you can [communicate] telepathically. It's just really hip."

As an example, Carter points to his seven-year musical relationship with drummer Leonard King and organist Gerard Gibbs, a partnership kicked off by the 2001 date recorded for Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (Warner Bros, 2004).

James Carter "As far as I'm concerned the organ group's MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet] for me. That's a fixed personnel. And anything that gets added—special guests and whatever—[fits] on top of that. There's no way I could see getting another organist or something like that. No. Forget it."

Yet neither King nor Gibbs is present on Present Tense (though both are part of Carter's current road team) and the extended jams of Baker's and 2005's Out of Nowhere (Halfnote Records) have been replaced on the new record by more truncated numbers. Still, Carter insists he's not trying to move away from anything. Rather, he means to expose the different paths he's constantly traveling within himself.

"I feel anything that comes up. There's always avenues of expression for whatever the vibes are that I'm feeling at the time. And the company that I'm in ... helps evoke that."

Carter says there was a conscious effort to limit the latest set to "miniature performances" in the hopes that the music would be more radio-friendly. He feels stations currently dominated by smooth jazz might be incited to expand their playlists if the time obstacle were removed.

"I'm not tired of NPR being our best friend or nothing like that, but other stations could be too if they see something that's under six or seven minutes," Carter reasons. "You hear dribs and drabs of [more classically-tinged jazzed] on some stations like CD 101.9 in New York or all the smooth jazz stations—I don't really hear it [in Detroit] on V98.7—but there are certain smooth jazz stations, particularly out on the East Coast, that give it up to the classics, every hour on the hour. They just got to give props to what their predecessors played. And I think that if people are a bit more exposed to what the traditional stance is [they'd see] it's just as viable as anything else. It's certainly viable to us—the practitioners of it. It's still relevant."

While Carter would likely stop short of labeling his efforts a "mission"—an attempt to restore jazz to radio for the masses—it's clear there's been a shift in his personal stance.

"I didn't get hung up with—oh my God, we're over such-and-such amount of time," he says of the Present Tense sessions. "More or less, if [a tune] felt complete there was nothing else I needed to do. 'What was the time on that?' 'Oh, it was like four minutes and twenty-three seconds.' 'Cool.'"


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