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James Carter Organ Trio: Live from Newport Jazz (Blue Note)

A review of the saxophonist-led group's live album from the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival

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James Carter Organ Trio, Live from Newport
The cover of Live from Newport from the James Carter Organ Trio

Recorded at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival, this set finds saxophonist James Carter picking up where he left off in Chasin’ the Gypsy, his 2000 tribute to Django Reinhardt, recasting some of the fabled guitarist’s most venerated pieces as funk-seasoned organ trio workouts.

The idea might strike some Reinhardt diehards as apostasy, but in fact, for all his legendary virtuosity and innovative genius, Django’s music was freely accessible. And while it might be stretching things to call it the pop-jazz fusion of its day, it incorporated elements of contemporary vernacular music—the street songs and saloon songs of Paris—along with Django’s own Romani heritage, his intuitive grasp of the European classical tradition, and swing-era American jazz. With a few modifications in cuisine and libations, there wouldn’t be too much difference in feel between the Parisian clubs where Reinhardt held forth in the 1930s and ’40s and an uptown show lounge half a century later.

At times, Carter heightens the intensity with outward-bound excursions into dissonance and polyphony while Gerard Gibbs on Hammond B-3 delivers an ongoing Saturday-night/Sunday-morning testimonial. Drummer Alex White alternates savory fatback grooves with multitextured deconstructions of them, occasionally breaking into solos that invoke the music’s parade roots even as they expand into more modernist, free-form sonic melds—demonstrating his acumen as a melodic, as well as rhythmic, craftsman.

This music is welcoming and, unlike some “fusion,” not patronizing or disrespectful to its source. That’s exemplified by the trio’s jubilant take on “Melodie au Crepuscule,” on which Carter—after delivering a soprano solo whose watery timbre seems to both satirize the teary adolescent bathos of teen-dream pop and acknowledge the honest emotional vulnerability it represents—concludes with a series of sexy mewls, gasps, and moans before tightening both his timbre and his melodic line to bring everything resolutely, and joyfully, back into the funk.

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.