Regina Carter Weaves Tapestry of Cultural Threads
Let’s talk about Reverse Thread.
When I first started working on that project, I had a completely different musical idea in mind. And that tends to be the case when I think back on most albums. I start off down one path and end up somewhere completely different. But it’s OK because the music leads me where I need to be. So I walked into the World Music Institute to find some music for this other idea I had, and this woman just happened to ask me, “Have you ever heard this collection of music from the Ugandan Jews?” And I said, “No, I didn’t even know that there were Jews in Uganda.” She said it was absolutely breathtaking. “Whatever else you buy, you have to take this, too.” And the recordings were breathtaking. I wanted to learn more. So I went back there and bought all kinds of music from all over the continent, not looking for a connection at all with the music, just buying things and listening. And I decided just to concentrate [solely] on music from the continent, which is huge, so I could barely scratch the surface. And I pretty much made the instrumentation choices before I started choosing the music. I had every instrument in place except for the kora—I originally had guitar. We started working through some of the melodies, and I had a few friends write arrangements. So we spent about a good year playing and rearranging the arrangements. Although I love the guitar and have it on a couple of tunes on the record, there was another instrument I was looking for and I wasn’t sure what. And John Blake, a jazz violinist and one of my mentors, his sister recommended Yacouba [Sissoko]. I had called a couple of other kora players before Yacouba and the vibe just wasn’t correct. If I’m going to spend my time on stage with you, that’s got to be right. Yacouba, from the jump, was just so gracious and nice. He came in and it was a perfect fit. And he knew all the musicians and the music that I was playing. I took it as a sign.
There’s a seamless transition between the kora and violin on Reverse Thread. How did you balance the overall effect of the sounds from these two completely different instruments?
My original idea was to pay tribute to and be respectful of the melodies, which are very beautiful. But being a jazz musician, staying true to what it is that I do as well was a difficult balance. Jazz has different chord changes, substitutions, things you can add in and still keep it interesting. But with these folk tunes, they’re more traditional tunes with only one or two chord changes. And for someone who’s used to hearing a lot of chord changes, they may say that it’s boring. And it’s not, because the melodies are just so beautiful. I had to really work hard to present those melodies and not get in the way of the melodies, if you will, and not overplay. That took some doing. And also to really lock into the grooves of these pieces—playing a groove is just as difficult, if not more difficult.
You’ve made a career marrying so many different influences together on your albums. Are there other sounds that you would like to explore on future projects?
My next project I’m working on is music from the South, which I’m doing my research on now. I’m particularly concentrating on Alabama, which is where my father’s family is from. My grandfather was a coal miner there. You start looking at the history, and it still ties into Reverse Thread because of the slave trade, where a lot of slaves wound up in the South. And there’s also a huge influx of Irish musicians who settled in the South, music from other parts of the world, and these other styles of music and sounds grew from that. Alabama has such a huge influence on a lot of music—rock ’n’ roll, boogie-woogie, the doo-wop sound. So it’s still the same “thread,” but just coming back on this side of the water. This record was an original idea I had before the Reverse Thread album.
What else lies ahead for Regina Carter?
I’m like a kid in a candy store when it comes to music, but I’ll be working and touring with pianist/singer Joe Jackson coming up this fall. I like being a sideman, and I don’t get many opportunities to do that. As far as more Reverse Thread shows, we’re playing the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and then we perform at a festival in Tel Aviv after that. For the summer, we have some down time since I go back to Michigan to do some teaching. I’m an artist-in-residence at Oakland University, which is where I graduated from, and I go back there twice a year. In May, I do a jazz camp there with the faculty, and during the year I go in for a week. A lot of times when I’m on the road, I go to universities, even elementary schools, whoever wants to have me. I’ll go in and do clinics. I work with the students and sometimes, because I do hospice volunteer work, I’ll go into a nursing home or a hospital and play.
Is that an added source of inspiration for you and your music?
Oh, definitely. If anything, it kind of snaps you back into being grateful for what we do and getting a reminder that being able to play music is a gift.
—Shannon J. Effinger
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