James Carter Reimagines the Art of Django Reinhardt

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Playing with European guitarists indebted to Django Reinhardt stuck with saxophonist James Carter.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

If Chasin’ The Gypsy proved the start of James’ reckoning with Reinhardt’s oeuvre, he achieved an intimacy with it as an indirect result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He was in Paris on the day of the attacks, waiting for the Chasin’ The Gypsy band to arrive from the United States for a gig that week at the Jazz en Touraine festival in Montlouis-sur-Loire. When planes were grounded, festival organizers replaced Carter’s band members with a group that included the celebrated European guitarists Stochelo Rosenberg and Romane (aka Patrick Leguidecoq), both of whom are steeped in the gypsy tradition. Carter later jammed with other similarly oriented musicians, the experience staying with him when he returned to playing the Reinhardt book with his old bandmates.

“For me, it made it a bit more legit because it wasn’t just about playing the music without having the true experience of playing with gypsies who were keepers of this music,” he said.

But for all the insight, knowledge and appreciation Carter gained by playing with authentic practitioners, the experience didn’t weaken his resolve to treat Reinhardt’s music as he wished; if anything, it encouraged him to unleash his subversive side. Around 2002, during a tour with the Chasin’ The Gypsy band, he and the musicians came up with the approach that, more than a decade later, would take form in the current Reinhardt project.

“We had a sound-check one day, and jokingly played around with ‘Nuages,’ and funked it up, basically,” Carter said. “That was the first inkling of it. But as far as making it a formal objective, it was late 2013, ’14. We said, ‘Let’s get two different ways of playing these tunes, to beef up the repertoire.’”

Intent on devising tactics for transforming Reinhardt’s tunes, Carter and Gibbs began holding brainstorming sessions in the driveway of the saxophonist’s Detroit home. One tactic they came up with was simply to draw themes from the raw material of common existence.

“We like to introduce a lot of what occurs in our everyday lives into the music: what may be happening in our families or news events we encounter traveling around the world,” Gibbs explained. “That’s one of the big things I’ve learned with James: ‘Keep your ears open.’”

Their ears were wide open when they heard a story about a local judge who, brought up on corruption charges involving a mistress, claimed that she “used me.” The turn of phrase called to mind the signature riff from Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Use Me,” and, in short order, the musicians had fused it with Reinhardt’s “Mélodie Au Crépuscule”—along the way adding an element of social commentary.

“Joking,” Carter recalled, “we took that phrase and popped it in Bill Withers mode and just took it from there. So ‘Melody Of Crepuscule’ unofficially became ‘Melody Of [The Judge’s Name],’ and that’s how we would list it on our song list, so we’d know what groove to play. We’d also play ‘Melody Of Crepuscule’ as a Cuban bolero—that was our second way of doing it.”

Similarly, they created alternate versions of other Reinhardt-associated tunes. Onto the ballad “Anouman” they grafted material from Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s boudoir-funk tune “I Want To Ta-Ta You Baby,” providing a sweet bed for Carter’s tart alto. Into “La Valse Des Niglos,” they injected elements of the John Coltrane Quartet’s take on “My Favorite Things,” with Carter’s soprano summoning a physicality that might have turned Coltrane’s head. And “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure,” rendered in almost tender fashion on Carter’s 2008 album, Present Tense (EmArcy), received repeated jolts of his mind-bending multiphonics atop fragments of Philly soul singer Teddy Pendergrass’ “Turn Off The Lights.”

But the most salient treatment might be on the album’s dazzling closing number, “Fleche d’Or.” On it, the band is set thrumming, sparked by Carter’s flashes of brilliance, his alto nodding at once to a riff from r&b group New Edition and Reinhardt’s prescient original. “This is one of Django’s later tunes where he started showing more of an electrical influence,” Carter said. “There’s a bit more dissonance and an electrical implication as a result, looking forward to individuals such as [Jimi] Hendrix and the blues guitarists.”

Carter said that he takes cues from electric guitarists—no great shock, given his super-charged performances. Onstage, he can be a kinetic presence; offstage, as well. During the June interview, he punctuated his comments with the gesticulations of an air-guitarist.

“One of the individuals I really started thinking about was George Freeman,” he said, referring to the Chicago guitarist and brother of saxophone legend Von Freeman. His “long sustained tones and little distortions” functioned as gestures saxophonists could adapt and play off of, Carter said, citing the interaction between Freeman and Charlie Parker on a 1950 live date, One Night In Chicago.

Carter said he was moved by artists “who have lifted the guitar from an accompanying instrument”—among them Eddie Durham, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, as well as Hendrix and the Hendrix-inspired Eddie Hazel, a luminary in the Detroit-based Parliament/Funkadelic orbit. “With electricity being involved, there’s a certain freedom given to those instrumentalists. I try to share in that same sort of freedom, to strive for it as much as possible.”

Carter put his penchant for electricity into action with the release in 2000 of the free-funk outing Layin’ In The Cut (Atlantic). The album—featuring Jef Lee Johnson and Marc Ribot on electric guitars, Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass and G. Calvin Weston on drums—owes much to Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, which counted both Tacuma and Weston as members. That Layin’ In The Cut was released the same year as the all-acoustic Chasin’ The Gypsy emphasizes the breadth of Carter’s artistic vision.

But Layin’ In The Cut didn’t spur the creation of a band. Carter only took up electrification as an ongoing pursuit with the establishment of his quartet, Elektric Outlet, which remains active. In the band, Carter uses effects pedals, while Gibbs switches to electronic keyboards and Ralphe Armstrong fills the bottom on electric bass. White still sits behind the drums, his sticks getting a workout.

The group grew out of an encounter Carter had with saxophonist Keith Anderson’s DigiTech effects pedal when both musicians were playing on a cruise ship in 2007. Intrigued by its sonic possibilities, Carter began collecting his own pedals. “I’m still learning how to work them,” he said. “But it caters to that aforementioned frustrated guitarist thing and that electric freedom aspect of it.”

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