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James Carter

Sometimes it takes an extraordinary talent to inspire an unprecedented piece of music. For Puerto Rican-born composer Roberto Sierra, the epiphany struck in the midst of a tenor saxophone solo by James Carter, who was appearing as the featured soloist with legendary soprano Kathleen Battle. Long fascinated by the horn, Sierra immediately realized he had encountered a master capable of playing anything he could imagine. Working closely with Carter over several months, he composed a four-part concerto that seamlessly integrates the forms and harmonic language of contemporary classical music, Latin rhythms, and jazz’s improvisational imperative. Documented on Carter’s 13th release and his second for Universal, Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra is a singular work that stands alone in the jazz and classical canons, half belonging to each world. In a fascinating collaboration that neither could have foreseen, one of classical music’s most widely respected composers has given this era’s most prodigious saxophonist the role of a lifetime.

“What immediately struck me was that he played with total command and mastery of the instrument,” says Sierra, a professor of composition at Cornell University. “James is the Paganini of the saxophone. He and the instrument are one. To me that was amazing, right from the start.”

Carter premiered the concerto with his hometown Detroit Symphony Orchestra in October 2002, a performance that elicited such a rapturous response that he and the orchestra reprised the last movement as an encore. As the Detroit News music critic reported, “In your lifetime, did you ever witness such a thing—the reprise of a new work, on the spot? Neither did I, until Thursday night, when Carter and conductor Neeme Jarvi finally gave in to a storm that showed no signs of abating and recapped the last long stretch of Roberto Sierra’s brilliant ‘Concerto for Saxophones.’”

Written for soprano and tenor saxophones, Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra and “Caribbean Rhapsody” (the CD title track) don’t just represent a new musical synthesis, they embody a state-of-the-art open-source collaboration in which Carter and Sierra worked through the piece’s details together, a process that continued up until they recorded the piece last year in Poland with a world-class orchestra under the direction of Costa Rican-raised conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (music director of the Nashville Symphony). For Carter, the premiere was just the beginning of an ongoing process exploring the emotional nuances and melodic contours of Sierra’s breathtakingly intricate work.

“Roberto said, ‘Let me know if something’s not happening. It’s your piece to deal with,’” recalls Carter, 42. “He’s not a stick- in-the-mud composer, pulling out his hair saying ‘You’re not playing it right!’ It continues to grow. I started thinking of the tenor and soprano as male and female roles, giving them a little more personality and incorporating some elements of the written material in the cadenza, which gave it more cohesion. There’s so much to draw from in the piece.”

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