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Regina Carter: Regina’s Reverie

Regina Carter
A painting of violin virtuoso Niccolo Paganini
Regina Carter

Look at this painting of the most famous violin virtuoso, Niccolò Paganini, at the height of his powers in the early 19th century. Concertgoers and fellow musicians alike whispered that Paganini must have had a pact with the Devil, which would explain his ghostly appearance, the wild feats of technique he tossed off in concert, the astounding flexibility that allowed him to perform those feats, his devotion to his vices of women and gambling and the transporting passion for music that fueled it all. The painting gives a hint of this: pale, sunken-cheeked, dramatically thin, he grips his violin and bow fiercely, preparing once again to play like no one before him ever had.

Now look at jazz violinist Regina Carter. She’s comfortably dressed in New York City all-black, except for thick black-and-gray striped wool socks that look extremely comfortable on a Gotham day marked by icy downpours. Sporting dreadlocks and a gold nose stud, Carter sits, legs splayed on a colorful rug in her cozy apartment. Her ready smile plays across her lips, and her frank eyes easily meet yours in a way that was probably foreign to Paganini. Carter laughs readily yet talks seriously about respect and history.

This unlikely pair is linked by a Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu violin, called the Cannon for its dark, powerful tone. Paganini borrowed the violin from a prominent French merchant and loved it so fiercely that he never returned it to its owner; the merchant gladly gave it up to hear it used so well. The Cannon left Paganini only after he bequeathed it to the city of Genoa at his death.

About 150 years later, the violin has cast a similar spell on Carter, who fought the mundane battles of bureaucracy and the more open combat of public opinion to use the violin for two concerts and now for her new recording, Paganini: After a Dream (Verve). She, too, doesn’t want to give it up forever. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed because there’s word that they might let the violin come here next year to do a concert,” she says. “That would be”-here there is a long silence, and the next word comes out as a rapturous whisper-“great.”

The bridge between Paganini and Carter, improbable as it is, has been strong enough to support one other connection: Paganini: After a Dream, with assistance from the Cannon, manages that tricky feat of embracing both jazz and classical while slighting neither and creating an atmosphere all its own.

Before Regina Carter, no jazz violinist had ever played the Cannon, and the idea of jazz touching Paganini’s instrument was disturbing to many Genoese. Carter studied classical violin as a child growing up in Detroit, and had even attended the New England Conservatory of Music for a time, but she eventually ditched that for the all-woman jazz quartet Straight Ahead. From there, she had variously embraced pop, Latin, R&B and jazz on her instrument of choice, culminating in Motor City Moments, a celebration of Detroit’s musical heritage, and Freefall, a well-received duets disc with pianist Kenny Barron.

But no matter how well-received her albums were, Carter had given up the great music of Western civilization completely in favor of contemporary trash: five records, not one classical composer! And she was even known to play her own violin like a percussion instrument on occasion!

Although Carter was the first African-American to play the Cannon, she dismisses the suggestion that race had something to do with the resistance she encountered. “No. It was just based on the [music] style,” she says. “People would be staring and I’d be like, ‘Why are they staring?’ But there are so many Africans that live in Italy, so it’s not that. It was just like, they knew: ‘This is the person who is coming to contaminate the violin!'” She laughs at the memory. “I didn’t feel that it had anything to do with me being an African-American. It was just about the music, which is still just as bad.”

The popular resistance to jazz in Genoa was both fervent and relevant, because any violinist who wants to play the Cannon must gain approval from not only the Paganini Institute’s management and violin technicians but also the communal government, the Mayor of Genoa and, finally, the Italian Cultural Ministry. To say the least, this is not an easy process, even for classical musicians; performers must gain approval for the repertoire to be played, the type of strings and chin rest that they use, and other seeming minutiae that, if treated cavalierly, could shorten the life of the instrument.

For Carter, the idea of playing Paganini’s violin held an immediate fascination. From her days as a classical musician, she says, “I knew about him more because I knew that his works were extremely difficult to play. That would be the thing for violin players, to try to play one of his caprices. And they kick your butt! And I knew that he was supposedly like a crazed maniac.”

When asked if she had ever tried to play Paganini’s works, she shakes her head, laughs and says, “No! I just looked at them and said, ‘One day, maybe.'”

Still, playing the Cannon wasn’t her idea. Credit for that belongs to her pianist, Werner “Vana” Gierig, and Andrea Liberovici, an Italian electronic-music composer and friend of Gierig’s, both of whom Carter thanks effusively when discussing these events: “My piano player was the force, he and his friend. They came up with this idea, and they weren’t going to let it die.” Even during the formidable bureaucratic trials they faced, she says, “I felt like I had no right to say I wasn’t going to do it considering they were going after something for me. Part of me would get really upset and say, ‘Screw them!’ But Vana and Andrea are so used to me anyway that they would be like, ‘Just be quiet.’

“Andrea would say, ‘There’s no such thing as “No.” I’m going to get this.’ He taught me that those roadblocks are really just speed bumps. You just keep going at it and finally you’re going to get it. You just have to sometimes keep pounding away. And then sometimes people will just say, ‘OK!’ because they’re tired of you,” she says, smiling broadly. “You just wear them down. You have to be tenacious, that’s for sure.”

Eventually, the bureaucratic obstacles were overcome, but Carter still had to convince the public of Genoa when she arrived to make her acquaintance with the violin and give two concerts at the Teatro Carlo Felice. She came prepared.

“I had been studying Italian at the time, and my Italian teacher’s husband said, ‘I think you should do a speech to thank the people for letting you play this violin.’ So he wrote this speech for me, and he sat with me and drilled me. I memorized it, and said this five-minute speech, which for me is really long in a language I didn’t know. And that helped to win them over. You ask me now, I can’t even remember it.”

When pressed, Carter looks up and struggles to recall the speech’s contents. “Thank you for inviting me to your beautiful city to play this great instrument. It was a realization of a dream come true and I will respect the instrument.” She begins laughing again with the last line: “I know that you all took a big step in letting me do this thing!”

How big a step was apparent at the press conferences Carter held upon her arrival, at which the famously aggressive Italian press questioned her. The memory holds no terror for her at all.

The reporters, she says, “kept saying, ‘Other people are saying that you shouldn’t play this violin because you’re going to screw up the instrument, blah blah blah.’ Every question they asked me, I was just like, ‘Bam!’ I was just like, ‘This is really stupid, ignorant. People have closed minds. You have to grow out of that. What do you think I’m going to do? You think I’m going to bash it on the floor? You say, “You disrespect this music.” That’s like saying you disrespect me, or my culture.'”

The press conferences aired, unedited, two days before her concerts, at which point not a single ticket had been sold. By the time of the concerts, 1,800 people had paid to see the interloper play the Cannon.

Of course, Carter still hadn’t played the Cannon much herself. She first made its acquaintance as press, officials and armed guards crowded into a tiny room along with her. “What to play is the thing,” she says of the occasion, “because now everyone’s just there to see what does this thing sound like, and I didn’t know. Obviously, everyone’s expecting something huge, so what do I play? I couldn’t think of anything. So then my mother just popped in my head, and I said, ‘OK. One of her favorite tunes is “Amazing Grace.” I’ll play that, and it’ll kind of soothe the savage beast.’ And so that was good, ’cause it helped to calm my nerves, too, just doing that. And then I just kind of warmed up on it and checked out the instrument.

“It wasn’t much time. The instrument is much bigger than mine, the body of it; the string length is much longer. So the notes, especially after third position, are nowhere near where I think they are. And a lot of my time was cut into for doing interviews and press conferences.”

She laughs at the memory. “So it’s like, ‘OK, I have to remember all this by tomorrow night for this concert,’ which was pretty scary.

“I started off the concert with a duo piece that I do with Vana, ‘Don’t Explain,’ a Billie Holiday piece, because I figured that’s the closest to classical that I could get, just violin and piano, and I do a Bach cadenza on the end of it. And then I slowly added in the rest of the band [with] ‘Chattanooga,’ ‘Lady Be Good,’ stuff like that. And they loved it! They really loved the concert.”

Despite the frustrations she faced on the way there, Carter appreciated that the Genoese had given her the opportunity: “When you really think about it, when you have something so precious, I have to really commend them for really respecting this instrument, and keeping it in shape. It’s not that they’re really keeping people out. They do let people play it. It’s in a museum, but it serves a purpose.”

And she did feel a connection, over the years, between herself and the distant, towering figure who made the Cannon his own: “The first time I played it for the concert, there were times I would go to play a note, and the note wouldn’t speak-we call them woof tones. And I would think [Paganini] was standing there, jabbing me, saying, ‘Ha ha! See? Not gonna let you….’

“I do think those instruments like that have so much history – I think a part of you is going through that instrument, and it stays there. So I feel like, ‘Wow! I’m touching this instrument!’ like I’m having some kind of connection with him on another level, which was pretty heavy.

“So it was a huge success,” she concludes. “For me, that was enough. I was like, ‘OK, that’s probably the greatest gift I could have been given.'”

It may have been enough, but it wasn’t all. After the concerts, Gierig suggested that Carter should record with the violin. Having entrusted Carter with their prize possession before, the Genoese authorities were less wary of a return engagement, and the bureaucratic hoops Carter and her team had to jump through were, at least, familiar ones. They met fiercer resistance trying to pitch the project to record executives back home.

“They said that no one knows who Paganini is. Maybe if they’re not in the classical world, but what’s wrong with educating people to who he is?” Carter smiles at the memory. “A lot of people don’t know who a lot of people are.

“And then they were like, ‘Well, but still, what’s the deal? You have to have a musical concept.’ And so I was trying to come up with a musical concept, and at the same time when Vana and Andrea were asking the musical community in Genoa whether I could record with the violin, they were saying the music had to match the instrument. Well, right there to me, that says classical. So I said, ‘OK. How can I marry those two worlds without it sounding corny?’ Because it’s so easy for it to sound corny. So we just really sat and listened to a bunch of pieces, just to see what we thought would work.”

They settled on four works by French impressionist composers, along with the Astor Piazzolla tango “Oblivion,” the themes to the films Black Orpheus and Cinema Paradiso and two original compositions by Gierig and Carter, respectively. The French impressionist works fit well into a jazz context, Carter says, “because you hear more modern chords, and it’s easier to take those chords and reharmonize them so that you can solo over them.”

Yet even as they are used for unfamiliar purposes, the classical works retain their own identity on Paganini: After a Dream. Carter credits Jorge Calandrelli, who arranged the music and orchestrated those tracks with strings, with essential assistance on that score. Calandrelli has, Carter says, “worked with so many different styles and musicians. He really kept the elements of classical there. He would tell us, ‘No, you can’t change this here, because that’s how the melody was written. You have to respect that; play it that way. When you get to it the second time, if you want to swing it a little bit then you can, but the first time you have to respect it.’

Without him, Carter says, “I would have said, ‘Oh, I want to do this to it here,’ and that’s not respecting the music, and then that’s insulting.”

Still, Carter knows there’s nothing inherently disrespectful about improvisation-in Paganini’s day, improvisation was expected of a great virtuoso. “In Italy, when people were opposed to it, I said, ‘What do you think Paganini was doing?’ It’s really a lost art form, and it’s really a shame, when you think about it.”

She recalls one exchange with a classical teacher who told her that she had to hew exactly to the score. “I was like, ‘Why?’ And he was like, ‘Because that’s how Bach wrote it.’ And I said, ‘How do you know? Did you talk to Bach?'” As she laughs happily at the memory, you can understand why experiences like that pushed Carter toward jazz, where she could be serious about music without being “somber.”

Yet even so, Carter admits with a laugh, “Violin is one of those instruments that you’re gonna learn classical music first. Everything you learn from classical, it almost seems like it’s the opposite from jazz.” She knows the differences well, having traversed them for many years. But jazz violinists, she ways, can never break completely away from their instrument’s classical origins. “It’s like if you go to France and you speak French, you’re still going to hear that American accent in there, no matter how long you’re there. That’s still going to be there.”

So it is appropriate that the Cannon played as large a role in shaping Paganini: After a Dream as Carter and her fellow musicians. “Because the instrument was so difficult to play, I knew there were certain styles I couldn’t do. Like I couldn’t do a real Latin thing like I usually do, because it would be too aggressive for the instrument.

So when we started looking at the repertoire, I just looked at it [as] almost a ballad record. Which was OK. But I didn’t realize until the recording that they all had that dreamlike feel. And that helped me with the title of the record, and also the fact that it was a dream that came true.” She looks into the distance, back into her reverie. “So everything kind of came together.”

You can hear her dream realized on this record: The classical accent seems to disappear, as a musical language arises that is perfectly suited to the instrument that speaks it and the person who plays it. Paganini made the Cannon his own forever playing the classical canon, but Carter has proven that it can speak with another voice and still sound as sweet.

On Paganini: After a Dream, Carter, aided by the sensitive playing of Gierig and her other bandmates-bassist Chris Lightcap, percussionist Mayra Casales and drummer Alvester Garnett-and the detailed, adept arrangements of Calandrelli, takes the originals’ lush, longing melodies, gives them their full sweep once, then spins them into the jazz realm with blue harmonies and spontaneous ornaments. A string orchestra on some tracks and Borislav Strulev’s solo cello on others provide another layer of lyricism; Garnett’s cymbal brushes and Casales’ rainsticks and soft-struck bells sustain an unearthly atmosphere. Most of the pieces unfold at a leisurely tempo, save the one swing tune, Claude Debussy’s “Rêverie” by way of Ella Fitzgerald’s arrangement, which sweetly glides along to provide welcome contrast at the center of the record. (Having only known Fitzgerald’s arrangement before this recording, Carter recalls her reaction when she heard Debussy’s original: “‘Oh! Check this out! He covered an Ella tune!'”)

“It took me this many records to have one unified sound throughout the whole record,” says Carter, “which is a big deal. I feel like I grew some.”

Due to budget and travel constraints, Carter had to record at home with her band and her own violin and then re-record her parts with the Cannon in Genoa. Nevertheless, Carter’s interaction with the ensemble is natural, even as she stands out with that instrument. She seamlessly accelerates to add a nervous edge to Gabriel Fauré’s “Pavane” and swings nicely through the Debussy tune, while always following up those gorgeous thematic statements with intriguing variations. And despite her initial trepidation about making the instrument work for her, Carter always manages to fire a beautiful sound from the Cannon, whether in the plaintive lament of Gierig’s “Healing in Foreign Lands,” the sultry, dark-hued line of the improvisations on “Black Orpheus” or the achingly rich melody of “Cinema Paradiso.”

The penultimate track is an excerpt from Carter’s own composition “Alexandra,” originally commissioned by the Kennedy Center. It’s a striking work, with an open, questioning violin statement that comes out as an arresting cry on the Cannon and that yields to mysterious piano chords that spawn another golden theme. The music then accelerates and, quietly and without fuss, moves through graceful solos in ear-catching timbral combinations, like the gently plucked bass with snare drum and piano accompaniment and a final wordless chorus before the opening statement returns, even more poignant. Carter describes the piece as a struggle to write, and she named it after a niece of hers who was born prematurely and fought her way into the world, as tribute and analogy to her own eventual success.

Carter feels a similar sense of triumph when she speaks of Paganini: After a Dream. “A lot of people at the record company said the jazz people are going to hate [the record]; they’re going to think it’s too classical,” she says, “and the classical people are going to think it’s too jazzy. When they heard it, they changed their minds, and said, ‘It’s just beautiful music.’ That’s what it’s supposed to be. It’s not a classical record. It’s just music.”

Listening Pleasures

Carla Cook It’s All About Love (MaxJazz)

Ella Fitzgerald Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! (Verve)

Stuff Smith Jivin’ at the Onyx (Affinity)

Vana Gierig A New Day (Twinz)

Parliament Chocolate City (Casablanca)

Chris Lightcap Big Mouth (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Renee Rosnes As We Are Now (Blue Note)


Violin: Storioni copy

Bow: Carbow by L.N.M. of Marseille, France

Strings: Thomastik-Infeld Dominant strings

Microphone: Roam 2 wireless by Applied Microphone Technology Originally Published