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Sphinx and Preacher: James Carter and the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir

Eric Benson By

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Carter's primary interest on Sunday night was form and its subversion, luring the audience in with technique, style, and humor and then delivering music that was often cacophonous and difficult.
Odean Pope Saxophone Choir, featuring James Carter
Blue Note
New York, New York
March 15, 2009
For the first thirty minutes of its set on Sunday night, the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir displayed its signature blend of precision and warmth, eight saxophones—nine when Pope stopped conducting and took up his axe—soaring and diving in unison like a well-built wooden rollercoaster. Pope's ensemble delivered a funky opener, a knotty tribute to Max Roach, and a rendition of "Giant Steps," which sent Coltrane's vexing intervals ricocheting between the saxophones—a soulful exercise in counterpoint.

The Choir's homage to Lester Young (Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the great tenor's death) was the evening's high point, as Pope descended into the audience for a call-and-response with the rest of the band. His bluesy sermon, a riff on the melody's infectious theme, had the audience clapping along rapturously with the beat. Pope's solos alternated between funky punches and romantic torrents, yet he always maintained a soft, generous vibe. This was Coltrane fit for dancing.

The avuncular Pope, eager to literally and figuratively wade into the crowd, could not be any more different from the brilliant, confounding, and distant saxophonist James Carter. From the moment Carter entered—about halfway into the set—he was so loud, so brash, and so dominating that he didn't merely steal the show, he violently seized the stage and held the twelve other musicians as his captives. Part of this takeover stemmed from Carter's outsized personality. He strutted around with his loud black-and-white striped suit, gleaming timepiece, and shiny wedding band; cracked a few jokes at the audience's expense; and, pretty soon, you realized you were in the presence of a real star.

Yet it was Carter's brash playing, far more than his appearance or his antics, that knocked the set onto an entirely new trajectory. In the past, I've been inclined to think of Carter as one of jazz's most shameless showboats, approaching every solo like a prima donna wide receiver at the NFL combine (he earns top marks for power, speed, agility, and tone-splitting). Jazz audiences are, at their core, not so different from sports crowds in their love of dazzling physical feats and their adoration for charmers. Carter's overwhelming virtuosity (his command of the instrument's dynamics, tone, and outré sonic possibilities far outstrips most his peers) is tailor made to slay live audiences. The same kind of people who greet circular breathing with riotous applause go gaga for Carter, especially when he sprints up and down the tenor's dynamic range, stopping only to croak like a bull frog, chug like a locomotive, or shred like an electric guitar.

Yet as I listened to Carter on Sunday night, I realized that his constant hot-dogging wasn't mere crowd-pleasing. Winning over an audience usually happens when an improviser delivers an impressive build-up to a triumphant climax, vigorously satisfying expectations. Carter, however, discarded this narrative structure almost completely. Clucking and cooing his way through the show, he performed improvisatory calisthenics that emphasized aggressive motion while flipping the bird at the concept of resolution.

Carter began his first solo of the night in medias res, with a full head of steam and at a great distance from the melody. (It sounded like he'd already been soloing for three minutes and the sound engineer had simply forgotten to turn up the volume.) Carter's solo careered through half tones, squeaks, clucks, and ferocious runs, ending abruptly without a developed conclusion. Later, Carter delivered an unaccompanied homage to Lester Young that continued this sense of movement-without-destination. He leapt quickly from one classic Young tune to the next, a smartest-kid-in-the-class display of scholarship and sheer instrumental force.

On "Coltrane Time," the set's final number, Carter followed the Choir's machine-gun melody with a jarring silence and a sly smile. After bursting out of the gate on his previous solos, Carter relished his moment of frustrating the audience's anticipation. Had the band messed up? Was Carter all right? After those awkward three seconds, he bounded forth out of the silence, playing call-and-response with pianist George Burton, before shoving him away with a flurry of notes that the pianist couldn't possibly mimic.

Carter's primary interest on Sunday night was form and its subversion, luring the audience in with technique, style, and humor and then delivering music that was often cacophonous and difficult. These games, both entertaining and heady, may offer a new way out of formal clichés with which jazz has been wrestling for fifty years. Carter's powerhouse squawks take the roaring avant-garde attacks of Ayler, Sanders, and late Coltrane and give them a sense of humor and levity.

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