James Carter: Caribbean Rhapsody

Bill Beuttler reviews new album from saxophonist who showcases orchestral and solo work

Charlie Parker no doubt helped inspire subsequent saxophonists-Branford Marsalis and David Sánchez come to mind-to want to perform backed by strings. James Carter, on the other hand, claims he had to be talked into it. A good thing, too, that classical composer (and Cornell professor) Roberto Sierra persuaded Carter to let him write a piece for him; the result, “Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra,” debuted with Carter’s hometown Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2002, had a handful of subsequent public performances in Detroit and elsewhere, and was finally recorded in late 2009 in Warsaw, Poland, with Carter joined by the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.

That concerto in three parts now makes up roughly half of Carter’s fine new CD. It’s unusual, and remarkable, in that it’s a full-fledged orchestral work penned with Carter’s improvisational genius firmly in mind, and it manages to successfully blend rhythmic nods to Sierra’s native Puerto Rico, European classicism and swinging jazz and boogie-woogie into an organic whole. A second Sierra composition for Carter gives the album its title. This one finds the saxophonist backed by the Akua Dixon String Quintet (the customary string-quartet configuration plus bass), with Carter joined on the frontline by his cousin, the comparably formidable violinist Regina Carter. “Caribbean Rhapsody” conjures Sierra’s “memories of tropical colors and sounds” via a sensual bolero opening that gives way to Latin jazz and salsa, ending with the Carter cousins trading phrases in a dance that is indeed rhapsodic.

Carter alternates between his tenor and soprano saxophones on the two Sierra compositions, and he fills out the album with a solo improvisation on each of the two horns, inspired by the 1985 Sonny Rollins improvisational masterpiece The Solo Album. They’re more modest in length and derring-do than the Rollins lodestar, but bravura performances nonetheless.