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)

Carter’s search for new sounds has few limits. But one might be an aversion to the electronic wind instrument, which he avoids in favor of the standard horn with attachments: “I think it’s a lot more personal than having the EWI and various things at your disposal that are all digital, because the electronic apparatuses basically have sensors that anticipate what your breath envelope is and shape and all that stuff, and it’s based on numbers, as opposed to what you can put into an instrument.”

For early exemplars of saxophonists who enhanced their freedom of expression by using attachments, he reached backed to the work of Eddie Harris and Sonny Stitt in the 1960s. “It’s a combination of exploring that freedom and paying homage to those guys for opening that sonic passageway,” he said.

Carter’s search for new sounds has extended to the classical realm, too. That move, Regina said, reflected his preternatural inquisitiveness: “We were all exposed so much to different styles of music. But one thing about James—he’s extremely curious. His listening range—you can’t pin him down. He’s influenced by everything. He always wants to try new things. A lot of times that’s what you hear in his playing—he doesn’t shut himself off from any good musical experience.”

This year, he’s revisited two classical pieces written for him by the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra. The first, “Caribbean Rhapsody,” a composition for string quartet and solo violin and saxophone, originally featured Regina and James. The title track of a 2011 album on EmArcy, it was expanded for chamber orchestra and performed with Symphony Tacoma in April. The second piece, Concerto For Saxophones And Orchestra, which had its premiere with the Detroit Symphony in 2002 and also appeared on Caribbean Rhapsody, was adapted for and performed by Carter and the Eastman Wind Ensemble in February.

Carter’s role in developing and performing these pieces, which arguably integrates notation and improvisation on a level more profound than most so-called jazz-classical hybrids, provides ample evidence of a musical gift that appeared in his earliest years. Family lore has it that his spot-on imitation of a birdsong both amazed and disrupted his elementary-school class, marking him as a precocious conjurer of sound.

That pattern has, to one degree or another, persisted. His extraordinary facility—and fearlessness about using it—have sometimes been misunderstood. “Some people tend to think my goal is the virtuosic thing,” he said. “That’s not my primary thing. But everybody’s going to have a certain amount of virtuosity to get their ideas across.”

He said that one person’s idea of virtuosity might center on fleetness of fingers; another’s on the ability to sit on one note and shape it. But he isn’t interested in defining—or being defined by—anyone’s take. He’s about “having that kind of freedom at your disposal,” Carter said. “I guess I owe a lot of that to Kevin.” The reference is to his older brother Kevin Carter, another guitarist to whom he looked for guidance.

Carter’s teenage years were a whirlwind of jamming, often at drummer Leonard King’s Detroit home, where James, Regina and their cohort all joined in regular basement sessions. When James formed his organ trio, he recruited King—for his skills, to be sure, but also out of a sense of community, Regina said: “James has a tendency to keep his ties to folks in Detroit and try to include them in some way.”

King helped hold on to Gibbs when the organist was, in the first year or two of his tenure with Carter, feeling the pressure. “I was going to quit,” said Gibbs, who now has been with the trio for 18 years. “I just didn’t think what I brought to the group was going to be enough. But Leonard said, ‘I’m going to come to your house and go through some stuff.’ He helped me get an understanding of what James was looking for.”

Carter said that, at the time, Gibbs needed to expand his thinking beyond the Jimmy Smith/“Groove” Holmes organ-trio paradigm to include concepts put forth by groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. “He needed to grow,” Carter said. “But he’s been able to grow and hear other things.” Gibbs has contributed tunes to the trio’s book, notably “J.C. Off The Set,” a harmonically inventive counter to Carter’s “J.C. On The Set,” the title track of his first album, released on the Japanese label DIW in 1993.

White also felt the heat from Carter. He recalled the day in January 2014—before he was in the band—when the saxophonist, an imposing figure apparently on a scouting expedition, sat in at his gig at Bert’s Market Place, a jazz club in Detroit. “He wanted to see if I’d back down at his musical pressure,” said White, who was 23 at the time. “Apparently, I did well. He called me a couple weeks later for a gig.”

In addition to providing a generational perspective, useful in the execution of the Reinhardt project, White’s joining the group has boosted its already high adrenalin level. “Alex not only rises to the occasion but presents other possibilities,” Carter said. “That was one of the biggest differences. Being young and thinking young keeps the eternal spring going in us as well.”

Carter’s own prospects were in doubt early on. “There were times,” he said, “I would go out with my fellow classmates or neighborhood kids, we’d be getting into trouble or just hanging out.” He even considered giving up music. But in 1981, he met Donald Washington, a saxophonist and teacher. “It was through him that everything basically fell into place.”

Washington helped build his technique and confidence. In 1982, he enlisted Carter in the well-regarded young-adult band Bird-Trane-Sco-Now! With the band, Carter logged his first professional credit, a concert at Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church, and opened for Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There, he first heard the World Saxophone Quartet, with Julius Hemphill, David Murray, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett.

“I was just floored,” he recalled, “because I saw four men on the saxophone who didn’t need a rhythm section and took the viability of the instrument I was playing to a whole other level.” He would go on to play with the quartet.

Meanwhile, the young Carter was scouring the media for jazz. He found Oscar Brown Jr.’s PBS TV show From Jumpstreet: The Story of Black Music, on which artists like McLean appeared. And he taped Gallert’s WDET radio show Jazz Yesterday, where, in addition to Reinhardt, he first heard Don Byas, whose tenor saxophone, a 1950 custom Dolnet, he later would own and play in a fierce and loving tribute at the 2015 Newport festival.

A Byas tribute album might be in the future, he said.

Through it all, the basics about Carter have changed little. “Everyone always saw James as really special, a hard worker, always had his horn, always playing,” Regina Carter said. “When he put the horn in his mouth, it was fire. Without seeing him you could hear, ‘It’s James.’ He’s still the same way.” DB

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