In conversation with regina carter
by Andy Karp
Restlessly creative and musically adventurous, violinist Regina Carter has explored an unusually wide range of music during her two decades in jazz. Her eclectic musical vision spans swing, bebop and avant garde, while incorporating elements of classical music and rhythm and blues.
The pre-eminent jazz violinist of her generation, Carter is an impassioned improviser who has performed or recorded with jazz greats such as the late Max Roach and Ray Brown, Kenny Barron, Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson, as well as numerous pop and R&B artists. In 2001, she made history when she traveled to Genoa, Italy and became the first jazz artist and first African-American to play the legendary Guarneni del Gesu violin once owned by classical music virtuoso Nicolo Paganini. Less than a year later, she returned to Genoa to record her critically acclaimed Verve release, Paganini: After a Dream.
Her most recent recording, Iíll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve, 2006), was inspired by her late mother, Grace. It has been lauded for Carterís inventive, lyrical interpretations of swing era classics, as well as for the imaginative arrangements contributed by John Clayton, Gil Goldstein and Xavier Davis.
During a recent break from touring and recording, Carter spoke with Jazz.comís Andy Karp about her early musical influences, her recent MacArthur Fellowship, her interest in studying music therapy and upcoming projects.
One of the hallmarks of your style is smoothly integrating different musical genres such as swing, funk, classical and rhythm and blues. What are the unifying elements in your style that allow you to be stylistically diverse but still make a cohesive, musical statement?
When youíre bringing styles together, itís easier if itís music youíre very familiar with and has been a part of your life, as these styles have been. I usually donít delve into music Iím not familiar with. Everything so far that Iíve recorded or touched on has been at some point an influence in my life. So itís natural for me to play those different styles.
With anyone, what makes a unifying style, the common denominator, is the player himself. No matter what Iím playing, if itís R&B or swing or whatever, youíre still going to hear that itís me playing it. Youíre not going to have to guess, because itís a certain vocabulary or style that I have, or that any player has after a while.
Were you exposed to a lot of different music growing up?
Yes, through my family, my brothers. Just coming from Detroit, it was a very ethnically mixed and rich city when I was growing up, and so I was exposed to a lot of different cultures and music. I was very fortunate to be able to hear a lot of different music, more so than a lot of people might hear in an urban setting.
Was that both on the radio as well as live?
Yes, because the radio stations then -- there was no big mother station or parent station or corporation deciding what was going to be played. DJs just brought in what they liked listening to, so you got a whole array. We had a huge Chaldean and Greek community in Detroit, so youíd be able to go through and find stations playing music from their countries.
Of course, Iíd go hear the symphony orchestra, and my brothers would be playing their Motown records in the house. My dad would listen to the easy listening stations. Then, when I was older and able to go out, there were community centers where you could go, such as the Chaldean-American community center. Theyíd sometimes have rehearsals there. So the music was available.
Also, every summer weíd have ethnic festivals. Each ethnic group living in Detroit would have a week where they would put on performances of dance music and serve their food and show their artwork. So even if you never went to their neighborhoods, you could educate yourself a little bit.
Who are some of the violinists who grabbed your ear?
I went to a settlement house in elementary school, and took a master class with Itzak Perlman. He came to the school pretty regularly. In high school I had a master class with Yehudi Menuhin. He was in town and our teacher got him to come by and coach us. That was very memorable. Not only because he was a great player and such a nice person, but because my teacher, who at the time hated the fact I wanted to play jazz, hoped Yehudi Menuhin would try to talk me out of it. But instead Menuhin said ďOh, leave her alone,Ē and picked up his violin and played a little blues lick. I felt like, ďYeah! Somebody that matters, somebody who has some clout, is in my corner.Ē
Youíve cited Jean-Luc Ponty, Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli among your jazz influences. Are there others?
Noel Pointer was also very important. People tend to leave him out, but thatís because they donít know him. I used to go and see him a lot, and I had the opportunity to speak with him. When I was older and moved to New York, I was able to call him at him at home. He made a huge impact on me.
I was introduced to jazz by Carla Cook, a jazz vocalist from Detroit. [Cook guests on Iíll Be Seeing You.] She was so taken by Eddie Jefferson, and sheíd talk about all these people. Sheís the one who turned me on to the music when we were about 14. It was a very, very slow process for me. Here was this very new music I was being introduced to, and then I had to figure it out on an instrument that people around me didnít seem to realize has always been a part of the tradition of the music. They donít really know what to do with me. So it made it even more difficult.
Classical musicians arenít necessarily schooled in improvising, at least not in the way jazz musicians are. How did you bridge the two styles?
For classical musicians who are exposed to baroque music, the route is a little easier. For me, because I studied Suzuki method, where you learn to play by ear first before you learn how to read, I had a gift of being able to hear things and repeat them pretty much immediately as a very young child. I think I had an upper hand as far as hearing and being away from the [music] paper. I was nine or ten before I got my reading together.
Although your violin technique is formidable, you avoid showy displays of chops, at least on your recordings. You also tend not to dominate your recordings, like some star instrumentalists do. You give a lot of room to the other musicians. To what extent does that come from your being a woman?
I donít know that it does. Itís not a conscious thing. I think a lot of things come into play. Maybe for some women, thatís a feminine trait. But with some singers, the guys in the band donít even get that much space, so that rules that out. I like to share. I know itís not all about me. When weíre playing a gig, I hate when people say, ďOh, theyíre backup.Ē Theyíre not backup. Weíre all equal. It just happens to be my name on the program, and itís my band, and I get to make the last decision. But sometimes I like to share in the decision making. On road, I like to have a family kind of vibe. Thatís apparent because I want everyone to share in the spotlight. Then the audience gets to enjoy everyone.
Youíve spoken about the power of music as a healing force. When you were awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, you expressed an interest about learning about music therapy. What area of music therapy are you interested in, and how are you planning to pursue this?
Iím not sure what area Iím interested in yet. I donít necessarily want to be music therapist in the sense of what you usually see. I want to take what I learn and use it with what I already do. When I do my lecture-demonstrations, or go into a school where there might be special-needs children, or into a home or a hospital where people are terminally ill, having a little bit more knowledge [of music therapy] would be helpful.
I donít want to belittle the feeling of going onstage and playing, but Iíd like to take what I do to a smaller community of people that are really in need and give them something a little extra. Iím at a time in my life when I feel like I really need to do it.
How did you become interested in the therapeutic aspects of music?
My mom was dying. There was a point where she couldnít communicate anymore. I knew she loved certain music, and I said, ďYou know what, while she can still hear music I wanted to play some music.Ē And I put it on and sometimes I would literally see her vital signs improve. So that was very intriguing to me. We always say music is very powerful. Itís almost a clichť until you really see the effect it can have on someone.
What are some upcoming projects youíre looking forward to? Do you have any recording dates planned?
Iíve asked trombonist Craig Harris to help me. I love the fact heíll try anything, and it usually works. Heís gone to Paris and written some music that heís put together with some Middle Eastern or African musicians. He worked a lot with one of my favorite poets, Sekou Sundiata. Heís not afraid to try to put things together. Iíve felt for a long time Iíve been so locked in. Iím ready to break out of that, and heís the kind of person that can help me.