11/05/07

Detroit International Jazz Festival

The influence of instrumentalists on vocalists has long been chronicled in jazz lore, but that of vocalists on instrumentalists has rarely been acknowledged. But you only had to hear violinist Regina Carter (pictured) at the 28th annual Detroit International Jazz Festival, where she was the event’s first ever artist-in-residence, to appreciate how much she has been influenced, both musically and temperamentally, by Ella Fitzgerald.

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Alan Nahigian

Regina Carter

Of course, Carter wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret. Appearing with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the festival finale on Labor Day evening, she introduced “A-Tisket A-Tasket” by telling the crowd it was her first time back in her hometown since her mother’s passing, and she had to play her mother’s “favorite song.” And the day before, in a duo performance with pianist Kenny Barron, Carter repeatedly referenced Fitzgerald’s famously free-wheeling, song-quoting live recorded version of “Lady Be Good.” Also, when appearing on the opening Friday night of the Labor Day weekend festival with her own quintet, Carter’s repertoire included the Ella-associated songs “You Took Advantage of Me” and “Sentimental Journey.” If all those musical references weren’t enough, there were also Carter’s comments about hearing Ella at home when growing up, offered during a Jazz Talk Tent panel discussion on “The American Song.”

In hearing Carter performing in different contexts on four of the six outdoor stages over the course of the festival, it wasn’t just obvious musical references that proclaimed her affinity with Fitzgerald. Like Ella, she is a jazz artist with an ebullient spirit, one who equates swing with happiness. And you better believe it: Regina Carter can swing her bow off. She proved that all weekend, but especially when she was guesting with the Clayton-Hamilton big band, whether out front plucking and bowing “Imagine My Frustration” (a tribute to the composer Gerald Wilson, who was in attendance, having led his own big band the night before); joining the sax section for a solo on a John Clayton blues original where she also traded down-home licks with Clayton’s bowed bass, or romping out with the saxes on the concluding “One O’Clock Jump.”

Another trait Carter shares with Ella is her fondness for mixing it up with other musicians, taking and sharing inspiration from those with whom she shares the stage. It’s obvious how collaboration inspires Carter, as it did Fitzgerald.

The pairing with pianist Barron is especially fecund, creatively. Since first appearing together at what was billed as a piano solo recital at Rutgers University, the two have had a long and fruitful, if occasional, duo relationship that has produced one album and numerous live appearances. Appearing on a waterfront stage on Sunday afternoon, the pair delivered a half dozen tunes in 85 minutes while contending with and largely conquering such distractions as ship horns, speedboat roars and fighter jets overhead—the latter prompting Barron to mimic a supersonic swoop with a thundering glissando (earlier that day pianist Bill Charlap had replicated the slightly dissonant toots of a river cruiser). Carter and Barron were wonderfully attuned to each other, responding to subtle cues to switch gears in mid-chorus or tempo, and playing with a joyful momentum so rhythmic on tunes like the samba-fied “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise” and the Ellingtonian swinger “Squatty Roo” that bass and drums would have been superfluous.

Carter was equally engaged in her appearance with the teen musicians of the Arts League of Michigan’s Jazz Camp 2007 ensembles, both playing along and soloing in the groups she joined. She traded spirited fours and twos with a guitarist on “Sonnymoon for Two,” rocked out soloing on Santana’s “Oye Como Va” with a jazz-rock ensemble, and joined a string ensemble on a rousing “Free South Africa,” adding exhortatory plucking and bowing. And with her own quintet, she was as much cheerleader as leader, giving almost too much space to the other musicians, with pianist Xavier Davis taking the most advantage of his long solos. But the highlight of her quintet’s set was an infectiously calypso-inflected version of “Little Brown Jug” with a guest appearance by “Mr. Detroit Jazz,” trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

One final way Carter carries on in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald is in her embrace of unabashed, lush romanticism in performing ballads. She and Barron turned “Don’t Explain” into a miniature rhapsody, redolent at times of gypsy violins. With John Clayton playing arco, she joined him for a harmonized take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” with gorgeous, tandem bowed lines. And “Sentimental Journey” with her own band, actually a trio with just Darryl Harper’s clarinet and Matthew Parrish’s bass, was exquisitely sentimental, in the best sense.

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