Thursday, September 16, 2004
With her luminous bandstand presence and exceptional chops, Regina Carter often draws attention as one of jazz’s most charismatic improvisers. But to really understand the violinist, you have to know about her as a bandleader.
In an era when rising travel expenses and shrinking support from labels has turned the already daunting challenge of maintaining a band into the financial equivalent of walking on a highwire through a gale, Carter insists on maintaining a working ensemble.
For Carter—a musician who has ranged freely across stylistic boundaries, soaking up experiences with everyone from Country Music Hall-of-Famer Dolly Parton and R&B queen Mary J. Blige to trombonist extraordinaire Steve Turre and piano master Kenny Barron—bandleading is far more about communion than control.
For her performances at the 47th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival, she’ll be playing with her longtime quintet, featuring bassist Chris Lightcap, bassist Alvester Garnett, percussionist Mayra Casales and the band’s relative newcomer, pianist David Budway, best known for his work with Jeff “Tain” Watts.
Rather than enforcing loyalty and requiring her players to sacrifice sterling opportunities, Carter believes that the band benefits when her musicians can take advantage of new situations.
“I learned that from working as a sideman for so long, when sometimes I had restraints put on me in other bands, where you can’t miss any gigs, you can’t send any subs, blah blah blah,” says Carter, 44. “And I missed some really wonderful opportunities because a band wouldn’t let me sub out my gig.
“I decided that if I ever have a band I’m never going
to tell my bandmembers not to take a gig. My piano player
called me up a few years ago and said ‘I have this
opportunity, I’m really sorry.
Is it okay?’ I said ‘Are you crazy? You better take it! Your gig will be here.’
“You need to bring in things from outside. It’s like a relationship. If they go play with someone else, or I go play with Steve Turre or Randy Weston or Cassandra Wilson, when I come back I’m going to bring some of that experience back to the music.”
Carter’s commitment to her band has shaped her aesthetic and her recording projects. When her career started taking off in the late 1990s, rather than jumping into a series of all-star projects, she vowed that her quintet would continue to serve as the foundation of every undertaking, whether recording a funky tribute to her hometown, 2000’s Motor City Moments, or last year’s ethereal jazz/classical hybrid Paganini: After A Dream (both on Verve).
“I’ve had to fight tooth and nail and just say ‘No, this is my band,’” Carter says. “We’ve worked really hard. We have a sound together. We know each other. I love playing with some of the stars. I loved working with Wynton [Marsalis]. But just because you put five stars together doesn’t mean you’re going to have a magical record. You have to have a grouping of people that really are connecting.”
That kind of loyalty has been returned to her in spades. The historic Paganini project, for instance, came about largely through the persistence of Vana Gierig, who was Carter’s pianist at the time. Despite skepticism from the city of Genoa’s cultural establishment, he doggedly navigated countless bureaucratic obstacles to pave the way for her to perform on “the Cannon” (Il Cannone), the legendary violin built in 1743 by Guarneri del Gesu, and once owned by Nicolo Paganini himself.
While initially greeted with suspicion and grudging hospitality—she was the first player from outside the classical tradition ever granted permission to play the Cannon—her performance was a triumph.
Indeed, she was so successful in winning over Genoa’s cultural grandees that she went on to record Paganini: After a Dream on the Cannon. And last November she was reunited with the storied violin at Lincoln Center, where she reprised the Genoa concert. A series of symphonic concerts followed the album’s release, and once again Carter made sure her band was in on the deal.
“When they approached her to do the symphony dates, she said ‘I’ll do it, but I want my band there,’” says Cuban-born percussionist Mayra Casales, whose relationship with Carter goes back to the violinist’s days with the all-female band Straight Ahead. “It’s given us all a chance to play with incredible orchestras and go to incredible places.
“I look up to her as a woman, and as a musician she inspires me every time we play. She always brings something that makes me light up. She’s so in touch with the Afro-Cuban rhythms. Even on the cowbell, her sense of rhythm is very advanced. When we get up on stage we just connect.”
From Detroit to the World
Carter’s gift for connecting with other musicians is another facet that’s easy to miss if you’re simply dazzled by her playing.
I reached Carter while she was taking a break from working at the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Jazz Camp, where she is the first instructor ever brought in to coach string players. She has started engaging more deeply with the Festival’s educational programs in recent months, for instance serving as a judge at the high school band competition. When I caught up with her, she sounded energized by her contact with eager young string players. “It’s been a blast,” she says. “Though three days isn’t enough. I have six players, and they’re really into it. A few have never played any jazz at all, but they’re really bold.”
In addition to her two performances at the festival with her quintet, Carter will be rehearsing with the high school all star band and playing a couple of pieces with them at their performance on Sunday afternoon.
While she’s a relative new face around Monterey (she performed in Carmel’s Sunset Cultural Center this spring as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s “Jazz at Sunset” series), Carter has been a significant presence in Northern California for almost a decade. She first made a strong impression in the Bay Area in the mid-’90s, when she did a half-week in residency at SF Performances as a member of the String Trio of New York. A few years later, armed with a grant from the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund to expand the audience for performing arts, SF Performances began looking for a jazz musician interested in taking the music out of clubs and concert halls and into the community.
“I thought of Regina right away,” says Ruth Felt, executive director of the San Francisco Performances. “I had been really impressed with her ability to communicate with kids when she was here with the String Trio of New York. She has a gift for working with all different groups of people, and she’s such a beautiful player.”
SF Performances was a little ahead of the curve in recognizing Carter’s talent. A thoroughly eclectic artist who has worked with an array of jazz and pop musicians, Carter recorded two electric albums for Atlantic in the mid-’90s that were widely overlooked by the jazz press. It wasn’t until Wynton Marsalis featured her on tour performing his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus Blood On the Fields that she started landing high-profile gigs of her own.
“When I did the tour with Wynton, it was amazing,” Carter says. “All these promoters and record company people who before wouldn’t touch me with a 10-foot pole, now were approaching me, just because I was playing acoustic in a more traditional setting.”
Her 1998 debut on Verve, Rhythms of the Heart, pushed her to the forefront of the jazz scene. Selected that year by Downbeat magazine as one of jazz’s leading musicians under 40, Carter quickly became one of the music’s standard-bearers.
In fact, Carter came to jazz relatively late. In high school, she heard violinist Stephane Grappelli, and immediately decided she wanted to learn to swing and improvise. But most of her training had been classical, and she spent two years at the New England Conservatory of Music before realizing that she wasn’t getting the education she needed. After moving back to Detroit she hooked up with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a guiding spirit for several generations of Motor City jazz musicians.
“Those cats in Detroit were like, ‘It doesn’t matter what your instrument is, this is what you need to learn and this is what you need to listen to,’” Carter recalls. “I would go to Marcus’ house and there was a group of us that would get together and play every day. I really got my indoctrination into jazz when I went back to Detroit.”
She made the move to New York in 1991, and threw herself into every conceivable musical situation, playing country music, R&B, rock, pop and fusion. She spent six years performing with the String Quartet of New York, recorded with trombonist Steve Turre as a member of his string-laden sextet, and toured widely with Kenny Barron after recording the stellar duo album Free Fall.
Impossible to pigeonhole, Carter credits her insistently wide-open ears to her Detroit upbringing, when she was exposed to a dizzying array of sounds and cultures. She celebrated her hometown on her album Motor City Moments, which includes tunes by former Detroit residents like Marvin Gaye, Milt Jackson, Thad Jones, Stevie Wonder, pianist Barry Harris, and tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Now, Carter weaves together all of her far-flung experiences in her music, drawing on straight-ahead jazz, Afro-Caribbean grooves, Middle Eastern cadences, Motown soul, and Impressionist melodies.
“So many times critics have said ‘Your music is too all over the place,’ but those are all of my influences growing up in Detroit,” Carter says. “I’ve taken people there to explain it: ‘See, you don’t have to drive even two minutes to be in a completely Arabic situation, or you can drive 10 minutes and be in a totally Greek or Polish area.’ There’s so much going on, you don’t have to go very far to experience something completely different.”