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James Carter: Big Hat’s Odyssey

James Carter
James Carter
James Carter
James Carter
James Carter

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.

Inspired by an old haunt and an old muse, Carter has distilled his myriad influences into an essence.

James Carter was born in Detroit on the third day of 1969. The last of five siblings, he entered a world brimming with song. His older brothers and sisters were all musically inclined, and his mother was a jazz fan with a particular ear for singers. On the airwaves at the time, Jim Gallert’s Jazz Yesterday featured prewar fare from as early as the teens and ’20s, while other programs on WDET-FM, Detroit’s excellent public radio station, mined the explorations of the AACM.

So Carter had heard plenty of saxophone by the time he acquired his first horn, a King alto, at age 11. He wasted no time before learning to play along to records; one early favorite was a Columbia double LP called The Billie Holiday Story, Vol. III, which featured Lester Young.

In junior high, Carter found a place under the wing of Donald Washington, a Detroit saxophonist and one-man educational institution. The older musician became a paternal presence for Carter, whose own father had passed when he was two years old. “Pops,” as the younger player has called him, imparted not only his devotion to saxophone technique but also to a free and open mind. Carter would later muse to All About Jazz that, partly thanks to Washington, his formative influences came from opposite poles: “[Albert] Ayler on one side and [Johnny] Hodges on the other. Bird and Trane came later, in retrospect.” This late embrace of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane was unorthodox then, as now: Carter’s playing is still partly distinguishable by the absence of those titans’ turns of phrase. It’s a small irony that his first ensemble experience took place in a Washington-led student group christened Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. Of the four syllables, only the last seems particularly relevant to the saxophonist’s aesthetic pursuits.

There were other mentors who held powerful sway, in and around Detroit. Miche Braden, a lifelong friend of the Carters and one of the city’s top vocalists in those years, recalls connecting with the saxophonist when he was all of 16. “I’m a bit older than he is. I was part of the crowd that he was trying to be around. Now he’s surpassed most of us.” Carter, in turn, is quick to credit the jazz microcosm of his youth. He still attributes much of his accomplishment to the influence of “the D-Town cats.”

Yet it was a pair of out-of-towners who catalyzed the most dramatic impact on his career. Both were trumpeters, and both were figureheads, if not icons. And the outcome of Carter’s interaction with each of them is telling.

The first of these was Wynton Marsalis, sharp-suited steward of the neoclassical age, who heard Carter during a high school clinic in 1985. By the end of that year, the trumpeter had invited Carter to join his quintet for an engagement at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. At the time, Carter was just shy of 17; over the next year and a half, he would work regularly with the band. But as Carter later described it, the gig was an imperfect fit, given Marsalis’ disdain for his wilder improvisational outbursts. Years later he would join Marsalis again-but strictly in the context of large ensembles like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Pulitzer-winning opera Blood on the Fields, where Carter’s role was clearly prescribed.

The second powerful figure to enter Carter’s world around this time was Lester Bowie, agent provocateur of the post-’60s jazz avant-garde. With his white lab coat, madcap antics and arsenal of unconventional sounds, Bowie was the antithesis of Marsalis-style conservatism. Yet his work was no less serious: Whether in the Art Ensemble of Chicago or at the helm of solo projects, Bowie expressed a deep musical intent. He and Carter met while sharing a Detroit concert stage in 1988; soon afterward Bowie invited Carter to join his New York Organ Ensemble. Within two years the younger musician had moved to the Big Apple, crashing for a spell in Bowie’s Brooklyn apartment.

Carter wholeheartedly embraced Bowie’s aesthetics, including the dream of a progressive music with proletariat appeal. Yet Marsalis, for his part, had not receded totally into shadow: Carter continued to share the trumpeter’s dedication to dazzling technical prowess, his devotion to the prebop canon and his fondness for stylish attire. So while it’s tempting to cast Marsalis and Bowie as the angel and devil perched on either of Carter’s shoulders (especially given Lester’s Mephistophelian, two-pronged goatee), the truth is that neither artist wholly consumed his vision. And as Carter absorbed their opposing forces into his own neutral charge, an unclassifiable style emerged.

For an artist so closely associated with daredevil feats, James Carter is, by many accounts, a creature of familiar comforts. Or, perhaps more accurately, he’s a creature of fastidious tastes who carefully establishes parameters and then comfortably wanders within them. Arriving five minutes early for a dinner interview, I find the saxophonist already standing at curbside, restlessly eyeing the traffic on Broadway. It’s a crisp early-October evening, and Carter is dressed in a patterned pantsuit, leather jacket and spitfire newsboy cap. He nods as I approach. “I was just wondering what I should do if I had some time on my hands,” he says.

Carter has selected the Tomo Sushi & Sake Bar, one of several neighborhood restaurants in his regular repertoire. For the past eight years, he has resided in the same apartment on West 106th Street, a stretch officially designated as Duke Ellington Boulevard; before that, he lived on another part of 106th, across Central Park on the East Side. As we take a table in the far corner, he muses about the delicate art of sushi-restaurant selection. “You know how it is,” he says. “You can’t eat just anybody’s sushi.”

A moment later, he spots a speck in his shoyu dish, inspects it and sets it aside-an observance he would later repeat with his bowl of miso soup. The menu goes unopened and he orders a sashimi platter, steamed edamame and two pieces of barbecue eel.

The previous night, Carter had attended a memorial service for Frank Lowe, a saxophonist of considerable repute among jazz’s free-blowing ranks. “Next month was about to be the 15th anniversary of us knowing each other,” he explains. “I met him under the auspices of Lester Bowie when I first came here as a musician, back in November 1988.” Not long afterward, Lowe formed a group called the SaxEmble featuring Carter and several other reedists, including alto saxophonist Cassius Richmond, another Detroit alumnus of Bird-Trane-Sco-Now. Through Lowe, Carter met even more heavyweights of the progressive calling. Many of the members of this community-like Amina Claudine Myers, Billy Bang and Rashied Ali-had turned up at Lowe’s memorial. “At the end,” Carter says, “all the musicians who had instruments got together and we played Frank Lowe’s piece ‘Nothing But Love.’ It was a real great way to end.”

Paying tribute comes naturally to Carter. His playing is thick with sly acknowledgement and subtle homage. In 1996 he went so far as to release Conversin’ With the Elders (Atlantic)-assembling a gallery of heroes with whom he joyfully locked horns. Bowie was of course among them, as was baritone saxophone legend Hamiet Bluiett, of the World Saxophone Quartet. More surprising was the presence of trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and tenor Buddy Tate, best known for their work with the Count Basie Orchestra; and Larry Smith, an alto saxophonist of no reputation beyond his hometown of Detroit (where he is a local institution). An all-star project without obvious star power, the experiment was a resounding success.

Carter’s last two Atlantic releases were even more effective tributes, although neither was really intended as such. Layin’ in the Cut placed the saxophonist in the context of an electric groove unit consisting of guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Marc Ribot, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. Formally dedicated to no one, the album tacitly referenced free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, whose Prime Time band had introduced esoteric harmolodic concepts to the realm of gutbucket funk (and had employed both Weston and Tacuma). At times, Layin’ in the Cut also reeked of straight-up Detroit soul-and not just on Carter’s muscular “Motown Mash.”

The other album, Chasin’ the Gypsy, mined the buoyant sound of 1920s and ’30s swing. Conceived by accident while Carter was on tour with classical soprano Kathleen Battle, the project featured as many as eight musicians, including Romero Lubambo on guitar, Charlie Giordano on accordion and fellow Detroit export Regina Carter (no relation) on violin. Although Carter insisted that the record wasn’t an outright tribute, its title, repertoire and instrumentation pointed resolutely in the direction of Django Reinhardt, gypsy guitarist and spiritual leader of the fabled Hot Club of France. Atlantic, which didn’t share Carter’s reservations, emblazoned copies of the album with a sticker playing up the Reinhardt angle.

Perhaps more than anything, the pair of albums illustrated the breadth of Carter’s instrumental palette. On Layin’ in the Cut he exclaimed, testified and cajoled, often in the extended ranges of his horns. More demonstrably, Chasin’ the Gypsy featured his official debut on bass saxophone, a behemoth rarely used since the ’20s. (The CD’s back cover shows Carter standing formally beside the instrument, as if it were a prom date.) On another track, he played the F-mezzo, an even rarer bird. In the case of both instruments, the results were far more musical than one might reasonably expect. What may have seemed at first like a gimmick quickly revealed itself a labor of love.

I remember the whole day,” Carter says between mouthfuls of miso. “I could relive the whole day if I wanted to.” He’s referring to a wintry Saturday some 17 years ago when he purchased his first Selmer tenor, a 1964 Mark VI. What’s remarkable about the story is that Carter had first singled out the horn on a much earlier date, among other bric-a-brac in an East Harlem apartment. It was instant attraction for the aspiring 13-year-old, then playing a Mexican-assembled Conn tenor on loan from his school. The Selmer’s owner, a friend of Carter’s uncle, offered to sell the horn for a small fraction of its value. But it took Carter four years to save up the funds. He was a high school senior when he finally made the purchase. “February 7, 1986, was the last day that I played the school instrument,” he recounts, with relish. “February 8 was when I copped that horn. Came back with it that following Monday. And, awww, man! All hell broke loose then.”

Saxophones are an obsession for Carter. He has spent countless hours in Manhattan music stores, talking shop and testing horns. Whenever possible, he refurbishes his own. And the bond Carter has with his various instruments is intense. Yves Beauvais, Carter’s record producer since 1995, describes a relationship that borders on the familial. “If he’s recorded a tune with one of his horns and this is the only tune in which that horn appears, leaving that tune off is insulting that horn. So as a producer, I am more objective than he is in that way. I have no relationship with his horns. I don’t know them. They don’t have names for me, or birthdays-which they have, you know, for him.”

Carter puts it just slightly differently: “There are personalities that come out of every instrument.” And his own discography bears out this point. Trading fours between baritone, tenor and soprano on his 1998 album In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic), he becomes three subtly but perceptibly different musicians. This characteristic has been true of other famous multi-instrumentalists, most strikingly Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with whom Carter is often compared. In any case, Carter draws from his arsenal judiciously. And an arsenal it is, although exact figures are hard to come by. Asked to quantify his collection, Carter shrugs. “I don’t do too bad,” he says. Then he actually giggles.

For much of his career, Carter has fulfilled the role of l’enfant terrible: prodigiously and precociously gifted, self-styled and brazenly self-assured.

Beauvais, reflecting on a professional relationship that began when Carter was 22, marvels at the saxophonist’s growth. “He’s matured an enormous amount in 10 years,” he says, “both musically and humanly.” Partly this phenomenon can be explained in terms of Carter’s home life. Along with his wife, Tevis-who graced the candlelit cover of The Real Quietstorm, Carter’s Atlantic debut-the saxophonist now has two children. The day after our dinner, he flew to Detroit, where Tevis and the kids now primarily reside. “We’re really celebrating the dual citizenship thing,” says Carter, who joins them when he’s not taking care of business in New York or on the road.

Family isn’t Carter’s only tie to his hometown. “I’m always going to feel that I’m a Detroit musician,” he says without hesitation. He goes on to define the term: “A Detroit musician in the truest sense is an individual who has the best of the West Coast, the best of the East Coast and of course the blues shooting up from Chicago and as far down as Memphis. A Detroit musician is a soulful synthesis of everything that city has to offer. And I can’t think of any other place that would have afforded such an experience. The music is ‘cool,’ and at the same time it can turn around and be as urgent and as intense as anything on the eastern seaboard.”

Such properties were evident in June of 2001, when Carter temporarily took over Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, a Motor City institution that bills itself as the “world’s oldest active jazz club.” The idea was that Carter, who had never released a live recording, would revisit his stomping grounds and let tape roll. During the three-day run, he invited a host of elders to join him, including tenor player Johnny Griffin, free-jazz hero David Murray, pre-swing Chicago tenor Franz Jackson and the aforementioned Larry Smith. In essence, the album was Conversin’ With the Elders, Part Two. But there was an added dimension. Through the hand of Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun, the gig’s second night featured a guest turn by Aretha Franklin.

A few months after the gig, however, Atlantic’s corporate parent dissolved the label’s jazz division, dropping some artists and shifting others over to Warner Bros. The change made Carter uneasy. Beauvais, his longtime producer at Atlantic, had recently decamped to Sony’s Columbia Jazz division, and it seemed wise to follow suit. So Carter’s manager arranged for the saxophonist’s graceful exit from Atlantic-on the condition that Live at Baker’s would still come to pass. That was over a year ago, and Warner seems to be finally readying the album for release, featuring all of Carter’s saxophone guests. Aretha’s contributions will not appear on the disc, by mutual decision. (“As a surviving document of the meeting, we weren’t digging it,” Carter explains. The two artists agreed to meet again in a studio, but that summit has yet to take place.) In any case, Live at Baker’s-slated for February 2004-will provide the first official documentation of an adult Carter in his old hometown.

As for his transition to Columbia, Carter says, simply, “I have something from the old guard at Atlantic, in the person of [Beauvais]. And of course a place to hang my hat, which is always a blessing in itself.”

His longtime producer offers another perspective: “James is someone who trusts people with difficulty. He is, at first, somewhat standoffish. But once someone is in his inner circle, he is one of the most loyal people I have seen. Several times I’ve suggested that maybe it was time for him to work with someone else. His response: ‘No, no, this is the team, this is what works.’ So on his side I know that there was an aspect of security, of working in the familiar. At this point he and I are an old team; almost family in a way.”

At the same time, Carter obviously understands the legacy of a label that variously served as a home to Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk and Bessie Smith. But his talk is of the future. “To me,” he says, “being over at Sony represents, hopefully, the possibilities of a company that’s wide open to various visions and whatnot. I’ve got a whole lot of ideas.”

Gardenias for Lady Day, his Columbia debut, begins with a sound previously unheard in the James Carter discography. It’s the resonant sigh of a cello, alone for the briefest of instants, then subsumed by the quiet swell of a rhythm section with strings. Four bars later, Carter’s tenor steps in, with the mischievous elegance of Cary Grant in a Hitchcock flick. The tune is “Gloria,” and Carter, betraying just a hint of Ben Webster, imbues a lilting melody with gentle grit. It’s a tender opening to this Billie Holiday salute. Never mind that Holiday never sang “Gloria,” a song composed by saxophonist Don Byas.

“I could just hear her singing that melody,” Carter says, explaining the song’s presence on the disc. He has similar justifications for “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” the Billy Strayhorn tune, and “Indian Summer,” a standard made famous by Coleman Hawkins. As for Cab Calloway’s “Sunset,” Carter proffers that “the lyrical content mirrors for me what was going on in her daily life, marking the passing of another day and bringing about, with the sun rising again, the aspirations of things unseen.”

In fact, Gardenias for Lady Day includes just four songs actually associated with Holiday, including “More Than You Know” and “I’m in a Low Down Groove.” Throughout the proceedings, Carter receives sensitive accompaniment from a stalwart rhythm section of pianist John Hicks, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Victor Lewis. Miche Braden-who took Carter to Lady Day’s gravesite shortly after he moved to New York-sings on two tracks. The string arrangements were divided between Cassius Richmond, Carter’s longtime musical compatriot, and Greg Cohen, a bassist of high and steady repute.

“I’m not totally crazy about tribute albums,” muses Beauvais, who once coproduced a disc with Cohen-Madeleine Peyroux’s Dreamland (Atlantic)-that much more directly harnessed Holiday’s aura. (Carter played on three tracks.) “I like the fact that this one is not so literal, that the Billie Holiday connection is actually fairly tenuous. It’s a very personal record from James’ point of view. There are a lot of things that are way beyond Billie-where James might have been playing with her ghost on his shoulder, and that’s it. But there’s a deeply personal reason for each song. All of which have the Billie connection. Some of which elude me.”

One such example is Carter’s own composition “Little Hat’s Odyssey.” Named in honor of the saxophonist’s newborn son, the song pays tribute to Holiday’s unfulfilled desire to raise a family. But that was too tenuous even for Beauvais, and the song was pulled from the album; it will be released in Japan as a bonus track.

“Her sound to me was just a whole cornucopia of things,” marvels Carter of Holiday. “It was the hybrid that, as she said, combined Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. But at the same time, I would get this uncharted sexuality out of her voice. It was also informed by the pain and suffering that she had been through, and her hope for the future. I could get the innocence of a young girl out of her voice, too-particularly in the earlier recordings, but sometimes shining even through some of the later recordings. Whatever the phases or stages of Billie Holiday, I find them all appealing.”

Holiday’s more perceptive biographers have made similar claims. In Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (Da Capo), Robert O’Meally contends, “There were many Billie Holidays, more than we generally have taken into account.” He goes on to suggest that “her faces were made up, invented: they were among her compositions.” In this regard, at least, she was not unlike Carter-whose various faces, or voices, coexist even as they conflict. Among the more distinctive touches on Gardenias is the overdubbing of horns on several tracks. Playing tenor and F-mezzo saxophones as well as bass and contrabass clarinets, Carter turns “Sunset” into a gypsy caravan of timbres and tonalities. It’s the first time his horns have been heard in chorus, and the effect is striking.

Nothing, however, is more striking than the album’s centerpiece, a stark rendition of Lewis Allan’s tone poem “Strange Fruit.” The song, a chilling depiction of a Southern lynching, has been called the first anthem of civil rights: It was made famous by Holiday in the late ’30s. Here the song opens eerily-with six cellos, Carter’s contrabass clarinet and a wind machine, among other layers-and settles into an uneasy peace, over which Miche Braden sings the devastating lyric with powerfully clear articulation. Then, after two verses, the mood shifts quickly: Carter’s tenor issues plaintive cries, the ensemble rises to pandemonium, bass and contrabass clarinets emit ugly, open-throttled sounds. Braden’s voice punctuates the din in a series of bloodcurdling screams. It’s a direct manifestation of the song’s imagery-and a distillation of techniques Carter inherited from Bowie and the Art Ensemble, among others. It’s also one of the longest 40-second intervals you’re likely to encounter on record.

In her book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (Ballantine), Farah Jasmine Griffin argues that Holiday’s greatness is “neither only aesthetic, nor only political, but both.” This would seem to jibe well with Carter, who fell in love with Lady Day the artist but also saw in her “an antecedent for songs of protest.”

As an example of this legacy fulfilled, Carter cites Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, a piece made infamous for a section in which Abbey Lincoln violently screams, a gesture now adopted by Braden. Carter, Braden and Griffin each point out that while the tragedy of “Strange Fruit” is historical, the struggle is contemporary. Comprehending Carter’s interpretation of the song, Griffin suggests, “It reminds us of the utter breakdown that something like a lynching is really all about, before it just becomes a clich? of ‘something bad that used to happen.’ Here, it happens right in the context of our narration.”

The strength of Gardenias for Lady Day, which Beauvais tags as “an extremely accessible and provocative record,” lies in its seemingly effortless duality. Painstakingly but not excessively produced, it has enormous commercial potential-yet never panders or beseeches. The disc satisfies Carter’s aptitude for repertory, his gift for personal interpretation, his saxophone obsession, his historical ken and even his devotion to the art of surprise. In doing so, it presents a musical vision of laserlike focus, suggesting a new threshold of maturity for Carter, whose talents and insights have always been well ahead of his years. Asked about his next project, he says, “To be continued,” although with one such as Carter, you never have to wait long.

At Tomo, after sushi, he recounts the work he’s recently put into practicing Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra, which the Puerto Rican composer wrote specifically for him. Having premiered the piece in October 2002, Carter is steeling himself for a repeat performance: He scats long, intricate passages from each of the concerto’s four movements to illustrate its head-splitting difficulty.

Several days later, he will walk onto the stage of Detroit’s new $60 million Max M. Fisher Music Center-which had featured Billie Holiday, among others, in its previous incarnation as Orchestra Hall. The audience will greet him with a tumultuous round of applause, as if they know him from Baker’s Keyboard Lounge across town; as if his success, in some measure, echoes their own. Flanked by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and conductor Neeme JŠrvi, he will put the horn to his lips and play.

Big Hat’s all grown up. Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).