To witness James Carter at work sometime over the past 10 years was to feel the tug of contradictory forces. Statesmanlike yet roguish, the saxophonist seemed coiled with enormous energies. Under his care, a menagerie of instruments roared, shrieked and clucked-and also purred and cooed. He played in ways both traditional and experimental, giving the lie to an overhyped divide. At time his performances teetered on the razor’s edge of spectacle: Horn in mouth, he could appear either quietly composed or dervishlike and unhinged. He took the stand with brazen self-assurance, but also dignified ease-whether decked in porkpie and pinstripes, an African dashiki or a nylon tracksuit. His music making, although clearly devised with a public in mind, showed a seriousness of purpose so pure as to seem impervious and self-contained.
In many ways, he was the perfect man for the age. Jazz at century’s end had evolved into an incredibly complex animal, shaped by cultural affirmation and commercial irrelevance. Carter, both a throwback and a genuine original, cut a sharp-enough figure to appeal to image-makers and standard-bearers alike. On the occasion of a new millennium, and with the dual and disparate releases Chasin’ the Gypsy and Layin’ in the Cut, he expressed his aim in a press release “to have one foot in the past, in a musical sense, and another moving forward in time.” It was a reasonable impulse for an outrageous pairing of releases, respectively harnessing the power of prewar swing and postmodern free-funk. Now, three years later, the saxophonist is poised to carry the dichotomy even deeper, and without shifting gears or taking sides. With one new album on shelves and another, very different one slated for release early next year, Carter has his bases covered.