Sentimental explorations can backfire quickly, often devolving into the saccharine or stumbling into the too intentional. Trust Regina Carter to navigate the tricky terrain of nostalgia with aplomb, mixing just the right amounts of heart-on-her-sleeve honesty, wit, and artistic experimentation to make her recent Kennedy Center performance "I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey" both memorable and thought provoking.
Framing her always stellar violin with the atypical instrumentation of clarinet (Darryl Harper), accordion (Gary Versace), piano (Xavier Davis), bass (Mathew Parrish), drums (Alvester Garnett), and guest vocalist Carla Cook, Carter delicately balanced understatement with an open hearted ease to paint a series of tableaus, each crafted to draw the audience backwards to a specific time and place.
Despite a few missteps, including a frustratingly muted sound mix, unusual for the Kennedy Center, and Cook's seeming inability to fully mesh with the band's groove, the night's best pieces hit the mark perfectly, combining traditional musical styles, modern inflections and colors, and the unusual sounds of the instruments to make one feel as if you were hovering above each immaculately carved scene, almost able to smell the scents, see the period costumes, and taste the distinct flavors of that particular moment.
Evening highlight's included "Oblivion," an accordion driven lament evoking empty, cobble stoned piazzas and deep, old-world history; the raucous resurrection of a Detroit jazz age dance hall titled "Black Bottom Dance;" and a deft rendition of "St. Louis Blues," on which Cook finally found her footing. Though all of these pieces were peppered with impressive solos, it was the band's choice to understate, rather than overwhelm, that stood out most prominently.
Each musician seemed to subjugate their considerable talents to serve the whole, transforming each piece into a historical exploration, rather than a platform for technical exhibitions or jam-session departures. That isn't to say there were no fireworks, or that the players engaged in pure revivalism. Particularly Carter and Versace showed great enthusiasm for clever twists, musical quotes, and some virtuoso displays that certainly broke from the traditional elements of the song, but they never departed so far from the underlying sentiment or structure as to violate the tone of reminiscence.
Perhaps most appealing of all, however, was the simple distinctness of sound created by the band's instrument choice. After all, how often does one encounter the accordion, let alone in the hands of a master performer like Versace, or hear it paired with violin and accompanied by a clarinet? Combined, the plaintive qualities and subtle tones of each instrument worked to cast a surprisingly effective spell, capturing the imagination in the same way looking at faded photos of someone else's family can raise deep emotions. Eminently satisfying, Carter's latest experiment is a treat and shows that sometimes the most provocative artistic step is a thoughtful reevaluation of origins.