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James Carter Blows Through Saxophone History

James Carter
Charlie Parker's Grafton Alto Sax
Yamaha YTS 875 Custom Tenor Sax
Yamaha YTS Pro Model 62 Tenor Sax

Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost

Once in a phone conversation with Sonny Rollins, James Carter’s name came up and suddenly Brother Theodore’s voice turned real sunny. “Yeaaaaah,” Rollins enthused in that gruff, Dudley Do-Right, boy tenor voice of his, “that’s my man.”

Not a bad gold star to put next to your name, but then Carter has that effect on people. For me it was his unaccompanied tenor feature in the Apollo Theater premiere of the late Julius Hemphill’s saxophone opera, “Long Tongues,” a condensed history of jazz that had as much to do with Jimi Hendrix as John Coltrane. Proceeding from roots sources in spirituals and blues, Carter got to steppin’ through cunnilingual swing balladry, serpentine boppish elisions, postmodern episodes of feverish feedback-styled riffing and speaking in tongues testimonies; finally, he turned his tenor into a beat box with a percussive admixture of key pad pops and slap tonguing. Referencing hip-hop? Sure, but also the earliest roots of saxophone technique?

“It’s not just an effect, because it’s just as viable as being able to slap on the bass or do rimshots on the drums, especially when you get a horn that really covers,” Carter explains. “That’s the way a whole lot of early [Coleman] Hawkins solos were constructed. And Hawkins didn’t really think much of it later on in life; it was like something he had discarded-like that was as far as he wanted to go with it. I looked at that, and also at bass clarinetists, like David Murray for example. You have to pop that note out on that horn, where it has that type of an attack. That’s how I look at it, rather than as some gimmick. Taking it and making something more meaningful out of it. Just the same as Duke did with mutes.”

From his early work with Lester Bowie and Julius Hemphill, through collaborations with the likes of Kathleen Battle, Herbie Hancock and Ginger Baker, and a series of adventurous recordings as a leader for DIW and Atlantic, Carter has cemented his reputation as one of the most adventurous, visionary young reed players today. Carter’s passion for the roots of his music and the tools of his trade run deep, and he speaks with infectious enthusiasm and encyclopedic knowledge both about his tribal elders and the history of his instruments. Not as an outsider, but as one of the most exciting young virtuosos in contemporary music; as an accomplished wind player who has taken on the challenge of mastering all the single reed and double reed instruments; as an eternal searcher, always seeking out ways of deepening his command of the vocabulary, while finding just the right combination of gear to expand his range and depth of tone on each and every horn.

To that end, Carter has just completed separate electric and acoustic projects for Atlantic Records: Layin’ in the Cut and On the Set 2K, the former a gritty, after-hours styled jazz-funk convocation with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Grant Calvin Weston, Marc Ribot and Jef Lee Johnson; the latter, a cosmopolitan evocation of ’30s Django Reinhardt and other significant, underappreciated figures of that era featuring acoustic guitarists Jay Berliner and Humero Labombo, Charlie Giordano on accordion, cousin Regina Carter on violin, Cyril Baptista on percussion, Joey Barron on drums and Steve Kirby on bass.

“Besides Django, we’re doing period pieces such as ‘Avalon,'” Carter explains. “And a couple of obscure items from the Cab Calloway library: ‘Silly Old Moon’ and ‘Sunset.’ Obscure only in that it hasn’t really been expounded upon over the years so that it can still be tangible. All this material has a lot of melodic merit to it, particularly in the type of chamber context we’re exploring.”

And given the rich archival nature of this musical context, Carter’s predilection for vintage horns served him well, as he reached into his extensive instrumental collection and unearthed an obscure, expressive jazz age saxophone. “The F-mezzo is a very vocal, bebopper’s sort of instrument–it sings. It has an English horn sort of quality to it, right between soprano and alto: it’s a fourth down from soprano, one step above alto. No curve in the bow like a regular saxophone—it goes straight down. And it has a bulb at the end of it. They were made by Conn from 1928 to 1930. And, of course, with the onset of the depression, they had to scale down their instrumental arsenal to what was standard issue for big bands. The exotic ones were pretty much the first to go such as the F-mezzo and the E-flat sopranino, while the E-flat contrabass sarrusophone—a cross between saxophone and bassoon, which is often employed in lieu of a contrabass saxophone—that lasted until about 1934.

“There’s this one tune of Django’s called ‘Oriental Shuffle.’ And I played it at most of the rehearsals with the regular B-flat soprano, and then I played it with this F-mezzo, and it’s just a different tonality, a different resonance—it just went really well with the other acoustic instruments. I would be shocked if nobody catches on to this horn.”

JazzTimes: They might just figure it’s you being expressive, James.

Carter laughs. “I mean, that’d be great and all that but at the same time, older horns are coming back into vogue. It’s a not so quiet renaissance.” A renaissance Carter became aware of in Detroit, coming of age as the youngest sibling in a musical family, and hanging out with the older musicians at the now defunct Horner’s Music, where he developed a hands-on knowledge of how to service and rebuild saxophones himself.

“Usually you couldn’t go to the back and hang, you had to stay out front; the back was for the older professionals. They were called the Back Room Boys, and I got honorably inducted once I started working in my teens. They’d play host to folks like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jacquet when they came to town. All the top cats would fall by Horner’s because he used to play with people like Jimmy Lunceford and the Detroit Symphony. An all-around musician who we lost back in 1997.

“So that’s how I attained my repairing prowess. I was able to look over shoulders and had access to different tools. What got me started was I had an old horn that was my first instrument, and I had polished everything I could on the outside, and then I decided to take it to the next level and got up the gumption to take the keys off. And it took me seven full hours to complete it, because sometimes I’d have a whole stack put on, and forgot this one key, and I’d have to take it back off in order to get this one part on, and that would set me back another half hour. Now I can strip a horn and put it back together, if there aren’t any complications, in a half hour.”

Such an intimate understanding of the saxophone’s mechanical makeup helped facilitate Carter’s explorations into the expressive possibilities of both modern and vintage instruments. Carter not only developed a firsthand knowledge as to which qualities make the older horns special, but came to appreciate the significance of the saxophone’s evolution in jazz, and of the ergonomic breakthroughs which led to the development of the most revered jazz saxophone archetype—the famous Selmer Mark VI series—and beyond that, to the modern output of musical instrument giants Selmer and Yamaha, which have enjoyed varying degrees of acceptance by jazzmen.

“The ideal mix in brass is like 70/30 [copper/ zinc], but during World War II a whole lot of the metal used by musical instrument companies was diverted to make armaments and things of that nature, and horns were pretty much down the chain. And that’s when the use of synthetic materials and new alloys came into play. For instance, in 1946 the Grafton alto was patented—you know, that plastic alto that Bird and Ornette played. Of course, it was short-lived because of the mechanics of it. I mean, it had so many setscrews and all this stuff in it—it wasn’t repair technician-friendly. You see, after the war you didn’t have this refined piece of metal that you used to have, that made a saxophone sound individualistic. They pretty much had the same mixture for everything, and then on top of that, automation came into effect so personal attention was lacking in key areas.”

Nevertheless, listeners attending a James Carter recital will likely hear him performing on a variety of horns, from classic Selmer Mark VIs to the ultra-modern black lacquered Yamaha Customs he presently endorses. In walking me through the evolution of ergonomic innovations Selmer introduced (culminating in their famous Mark VI line, the pre-eminent choice among discerning jazz saxophonists from the mid-’50s through the mid-’70s), I gained a greater appreciation for the issues which influence saxophonists’ choice of instruments, and the present state of the modern saxophone family.

“Selmer were the first ones to put both tone holes for the bell on one side of the instrument, which keeps it from jacking up your clothes and gives it a freer vibration. They also switched their stacks around so that the horn became functionally friendlier. Because all of the keys on the main part of the horn were in line up until the time of the Super Action. So instead of playing the horn like this [extends arms stiffly], when Super Action came along it laid a lot more easily [relaxes arms at an offset angle]. It had more of a human feel as far as where it lay. When they turned this column around here, and made the left side offset from the right, both arms were relaxed, and that improved the flexibility and the playing action and the comfort overall. And this was the Super Balanced Action going into the Mark VI. So this pretty much established the standard of everything that you see out here today.

“Now you come up to 1974 and they changed everything by coming up with this improved model, quote/unquote, which was the Mark VII. It was designed with Fred Hemke in mind. Because he was like 6’4″, with big hands, and that’s why the key spatulas were big on the Mark VII. It was to accommodate his big hands or whatever.”

JazzTimes: So the problem with the Mark VII was not so much the sound as the orientation?

“No, it was the sound, too. Because they changed the bore, as in the inner chamber of the horn; they expanded it even more, I think, and with that they expanded the tone holes, particularly on the top of the instrument, as well as some on the bottom, to proportionally correspond to the bigger bore. And that threw the whole horn out of whack, particularly for jazz players. Some jazz players wound up liking it, and some didn’t—but it didn’t catch on like the Mark VI.

“Later on the Super Action 80s came into play, and they’re trying to get back to that Mark VI feel slowly but surely, and I don’t understand why they ever dropped it, but in a way I do. They regard the Mark VI almost like baby pictures. Like this was one of our prize babies, but now we’re much more advanced and we’ve got it to the point where it’s in tune with itself—perhaps not in tune with the world in a whole lot of instances. But it plays, and it’s in tune. I’ve gone through, like, three of the Super Action 80 Series III and I wound up getting one of them that I particularly dug. And it wasn’t a bad axe, but for the most part, if you sit down, they sound pretty much the same in a lot of instances.

“Meanwhile, Japanese manufacturers, seeing that there was this void, took it upon themselves to emulate the Mark VI as much as possible. And that’s how the Yamahas and, to a lesser extent, companies such as Yanigasawa came to be regarded, I feel, as the heir apparent to the Mark VI legacy, because everything I am able to do on the Mark VI, I’m able to do on the Yamaha 62 professional model or the Yamaha Custom, the top-of-the-line flagship model with all the thrills and dills and chills on it. It brought the reverence of the Mark VI to the palette of late ’70s and early ’80s, up to the present.”

Of course, what makes each and every saxophonist unique is the nature of his or her basic reed mouthpiece setup. “Well, it’s your first contact. That’s your spiritual hook-up with the horn. I like the old brown box Ricos, generally from 21/2 to 3 and 31/2. They’re coated with plastic, so they’re a little more stable, durable, brighter; a good all-around performance, like the next best thing to a synthetic reed, but you still have the warmth of the cane. Because I’ve tried out those plastic ones that outlast cane 200:1 and all that, but they’re kind of sterile. I played them with Lester [Bowie], and when I really got into it the reed started giving way, and they didn’t even last me a song. I wound up having to peel ’em off like a hangnail. It’s funny, ’cause Lester Young in his latter years used an old Brill hard rubber mouthpiece and a plastic reed, and I guess that took all of the monotony out of finding a good reed for him, and he played it within the compass of his instrument—it wasn’t like he was going for upper partial stuff, anyway.”

And while Carter employs all sorts of mouthpiece combinations, invariably he finds himself returning to some handmade brass mouthpieces made by Jeff Lawton of England, which were originally gifts from saxophone mentors Hamiet Bluiett and Julius Hemphill. “I mean, this guy hand-makes each and every one of his mouthpieces out of a solid bar of brass,” Carter enthuses. “And when I first put this Lawton on my baritone there was just this incredible beefiness to the sound and the whole upper register was so extended. It wasn’t like the sound instantly popped out. The thing that instantly popped out was the potential for a good sound on all these mouthpieces, for a really extended range and a rich mix of overtones and harmonics. But like anything else, you have to work with them. But they pack the same power with a Mark VI or a new Yamaha as they do with an old Conn. They just run the whole gamut without missing a beat.

“Hopefully when I go to England later this month, I’ll have the time to hook up with Jeff Lawton and meet him in person for the first time. And that would be the ultimate; to really get a chance to hang out with Lawton and hopefully to get some other stuff happening that would continue to nourish this—this voice. These tools of the trade just help you along in your journey.” Originally Published