The Jazz.com Blog
January 13, 2009 · 0 comments
Neither snow nor rain nor a two drink minimum can prevent Roanna Forman from covering the Boston jazz scene for jazz.com. In recent weeks, she has reviewed Dominique Eade, Laszlo Gardony, Roy Hargrove, and the Berklee BeanTown Jazz Festival in this column. Below she reports on James Carter's performance at Sculler’s on Saturday. T.G.
James Carter is big—big in stature, and big in talent. The 39-year-old multi-instrumentalist put out a spit-polish early set at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston on January 10. But while this reeds wunderkind played wunderfully, his organist and drummer didn’t provide a rising tide to lift him higher.
Carter, who never saw a reed instrument he couldn’t play, including the entire saxophone family, and contrabass and bass clarinet, started at age 11. By 16, Carter apparently gave his music buddy at Michigan's Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, first tenor Kelly Bucheger, a near nervous breakdown when he eased past Bucheger as soloist while playing from the second tenor book. (Check out the details at “James Carter Ruined My Life,” from Kelly Bucheger’s Jazz Pages.) Carter would play and listen incessantly, Bucheger recalls, and yes, fall asleep with his sax in his mouth, while “trying to work things out.”
He’s still trying just as hard, and making great music. In his Boston show, switching between soprano, baritone, and tenor saxes and flute effortlessly, Carter promoted his new CD Present Tense along with other material during a mix of ballads, funk, (overly fast) bossa and high-energy grooves. The set, like Carter’s career, reflected a reverence for the past and a solid foot in the present. For instance: a 1993 alumnus of Julius Hemphill’s Five Chord Stud, Carter went on to include “1944 Stomp” and Ellington’s “The Stevedore’s Serenade” on his own CD a year later. In 1995, his Conversin’ with the Elders proffered a mini-jazz history course with composers from Benny Moten to Anthony Braxton.
Carter’s long-time admiration for Django Reinhardt, captured in his CD Chasin’ the Gypsy, continued in his latest release Present Tense with “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure,” the show’s first number. After a raspy solo opening on soprano, whose force was either stylistic choice or opening jitters, the saxophonist was smooth as silk, squawky as a pissed-off goose, and garrulous as William F. Buckley—all on command. Gerard Gibbs’s B3 solo on “Demeure” didn’t make musical sense to me—that he didn’t swing it was understandable, but he chose an almost music-box tone that undermined the song’s finesse. Carter put back the smoothness that this beautiful Django ballad needs when his turn came to play.
Gibbs, whose bass pedals were sometimes jarringly louder as he started, definitely got greasy on tunes that called for it, just the way you’d expect him to be sliding around on the B3. In “Theme in Search of a TV,” which dished out funk over a hard-hitting New Orleans fatback, he laid down some good runs and nice polyrhythms, with tasteful shouts and kicks by the trio. Leonard King added plenty of punch, but he is not a subtle drummer; I would have liked more colors and sometimes less cymbals. Then Carter came in with supple, intelligent lines on the baritone, melodic and funky at the same time, and he hit his stride. Beefy and deep but ready to wail, his baritone sax fits him best.
Picking up the flute on “Many Blessings” and Horace Silver’s “Silver Serenade,” Carter’s playing was pretty and precise—bluesy, sometimes breathy, always clean. He seemed to play the instrument, relatively small-looking in his large hands, in an off-handed way, dashing off lines that he’d physically and musically struggle to execute on the larger reeds.
Besides the B3, where he generally played with grace, grit, and fluidity, Gerard Gibbs also used electric keyboards. The crowd, unlike me, enjoyed his use of effects—“vibes” on “Silver Serenade” and “trumpet” on “Many Blessings,” which, despite their musicality, seemed tacky. Let keyboards be keyboards, I say.
Carter plays with intensity, and naturally the volume level rose with him, although sometimes subtleties were lost and I hope that the musicians could hear each other. Falling into the “volume trap” is a common problem in music today, even jazz. That’s a pity, because jazz turns on nuance. Carter’s players generally calmed down behind him, except in high-energy tunes like Gigi Gryce’s “Hymn of the Orient,” the last number, where you’d expect them to take it out, and up.
But the show, like the bandleader, was a crowd pleaser all the way. Carter is definitely a showman. Pulling the finish on “Demeure” up to a mighty high note, even for a soprano sax, or producing notes on a baritone that you’d swear come from a tenor, the theatrical, physical Carter characteristically demonstrated his prowess with his instruments—he’s one of those musicians who sets himself technical challenges, and, once met, proudly displays them in performance. Of course, you have to be careful that pyrotechnics don’t undercut musicality; Carter walks that line nicely.
A performer who gives 150% on the bandstand, Carter seemed to be exhorting himself in his final solo to keep pushing in each phrase as he reached for what he wanted. Just like when he was 16, trying to work it out. Might he be better served in that quest with players who stretch him more?
This blog entry posted by Roanna Forman