When James Carter burst onto the scene a dozen years ago, it was akin to the second coming. Not since the 1960s had someone emerged with so potent a combination of astounding advanced and extended techniques, fiery intensity, and unfettered imagination. Clearly well-versed in the mainstream, Carter nevertheless approached it from the left with a rawness informed by artists like Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. Early recordings found Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Mel Tormé comfortably coexisting with his own far-reaching compositions.
They say the light that shines twice as bright burns half as long. Carter's ascendancy continued through the end of the decade, with a series of recordings bridging the chasm between Django Reinhardt and contemporary funk, then he fell relatively silent. He returned in 2003 with Gardenias for Lady Day, a heartfelt tribute to Billie Holiday featuring detailed arrangements that combined his traditional and avant leanings. Last year's Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge found Carter on a straightforward blowing session, an approach he continues with on Out of Nowhere: Live at the Blue Note.
Live at Baker's was something of an all-star affair, with drop-ins including David Murray and Johnny Griffin. Out of Nowhere is a more focused group effort featuring Carter's trio with organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King. Baritone legend Hamiet Bluiett and guitarist James "Blood Ulmer expand the group to a quintet for the second half, but it feels more planned than the impromptu vibe of Live at Baker's.
Those unfamiliar with Carter's larger-than-life unpredictability are eased into it gently. The gently-swinging title track opens, with Carter's robust tenor demonstrating but a fraction of the extended techniques for which he's regarded. The time the band picks up steam for Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty with Carterthis time on sopranobeginning to move farther afield. Combining incredible articulation, timbral breadth, dense sheets of sound, and notes almost beyond hearing range, Carter shows how a mainstream song can be liberally stretched and still swing hard.
Things shift even further when Bluiett and Ulmer take the stage for Ulmer's "Highjack, a modal 2/4 vamp with a rock edge. The piece begins with a powerful solo from King, and Ulmer's angular lines demonstrate why he's long been considered by those in the know as one of jazz's more intrepid guitarists. Bluiett and Carterboth on baritonecreate striking waves of such intensity that one wonders how this can possibly fit with the set's more conventional openers. Yet it does, and the rest of itBluiett's soulful ballad "Song For Camille, Ulmer's vocal turn on the gritty blues of "Little Red Rooster, and a surprisingly faithful take on the pop hit "I Believe I Can Fly continues to mix styles yet remain focused.
This recording's sense of adventure and avoidance of the expected makes for an entertaining and eye-opening experience. For those who wonder where Carter's been, the answer is right here. And for those who don't know himor his illustrious associatesthis is as painless an entry into their audacious world as you're apt to find.
Out of Nowhere; Along Came Betty; Highjack; Song for Camille; Little Red Rooster; I Believe I Can Fly.
James Carter: saxophones; Gerard Gibbs: organ; Leonard King: drums; Hamiet Bluiett: baritone saxophone (3-7); James
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