Saxophonist James Carter and his band were touring in support of Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter's 2000 tribute to gypsy-jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt, when they started playing “Nuages” during a soundcheck. But instead of injecting a bit of tango into Reinhardt’s song, as they had for the album, they gave it more of an R&B edge, à la Tower of Power.
That’s when the seed was planted for Carter’s new album, slated for release later this year on Blue Note Records, which he signed with last year. Carter is revisiting the music of Reinhardt again, but giving the songs an urban push, this time with the James Carter Organ Trio, which he’s led since 2001.
“For most people that hadn’t heard Reinhardt’s music before, it sounded like a good catalyst that we introduced to them, so that they could go back and check out the original — you know, it would be cool on both ends of it,” Carter says.
The trio has recently been road-testing some of Reinhardt’s songs, including “Manoir de Mes Reves” and “Melodie au Crepuscule,” but Carter says they’ve been keeping things more elastic, having “at least two or three different ways to play any of these particular tunes just to change up the vibe and to have it our disposal.”
The trio has also taken Gustav Mahler’s “La Valse des Niglos” and put in more of a modal context, in the vein of John Coltrane’s version of another familiar song. “If you can just imagine ‘My Favorite Things’ but with this gypsy waltz on top of it," Carter says, "that will give you a good idea.”
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Carter’s trio will stop at Dazzle on Sunday, March 31, and Monday, April 1, at the tail end of the jazz club's week dedicated to Detroit artists, which has included saxophonist Dave McMurray, poet and former MC5 manager John Sinclair, and blues singer Thornetta Davis. Carter, who turned fifty in January, grew up in Detroit in a musical family. His two brothers and two sisters are musically inclined, as is cousin Regina Carter, who played violin on Chasin’ the Gypsy.
When Carter was about seven, he'd watch his brothers rehearse with their cover bands in the basement or the garage. “I was the pest that was hanging around and was soaking all of it up,” he says. “I mean, soaking up the vibe.”
Some of the people in those bands eventually joined Parliament Funkadelic; Carter's brother Kevin played with the legendary funk outfit in the mid-’70s. “Growing up, these people were coming in and out of the house,” Carter remembers. “Ray Parker lived down the street from us. His brother, Opelton Parker, played in my oldest brother’s group, Nature’s Divine. This was all in the neighborhood and stuff. And this was before I even thought about playing."
Carter started on the saxophone at eleven, inspired to take up the instrument by the jazz albums his mother would play when she was chilling out and not yelling at her kids to clean their rooms or take out the garbage. “The only time that I’d see her in a cozy condition was when she was doing the chores and she had jazz music on,” Carter says. “This is when I saw the other side of her. So it was partially because, wow, Mom seems to be chilled by the savage beast when [jazz] comes on.”
His mother loved vocalists like Billy Eckstine, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. “And nine times out of ten,” Carter recalls, “after a vocalist sang on a particular tune, there was a sound that came about. And that sound was saxophone. So that’s how it happened inadvertently. It was out of wanting to be in concert with what made Mom cool and getting on her good side, and turns out it was a turn for the better in terms of knowing a good part about the heritage and the legacy that’s in this music, and being able to travel and to have a family and all as a result of it. So it was a catalyst for life.”
In 1986, while still a teenager, Carter played with Wynton Marsalis and the Denver Symphony Orchestra, the predecessor to the Colorado Symphony, and he joined a jam session after the show at El Chapultepec.
By the time Carter released his brilliant 1994 debut, JC on the Set, it was clear that he’d been diligently working on his chops — not only tenor sax, his main horn, but also baritone and alto, and then other woodwind instruments. His tone was already bright and massive, steeped in the tradition of players like Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons, while also hinting at future directions.
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Over the next two and a half decades, Carter proved that he was not only well-versed in jazz, but equally comfortable in the funk realm. The same year he released the swinging Chasin’ the Gypsy, he made the electric-funk Layin’ in the Cut with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, who had both worked in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band.
Today Carter continues to explore funk and R&B with his quartet Elektrik Outlet, which features keyboardist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Alex White, who are in his trio as well. Carter says he particularly likes the trio format for three things: power, soul and economy.
“And it’s all rolled up into one,” he says. “Gerard really holds things down. He’s grown exponentially since 2001. Having Alex White aboard brings a new energy into the mix, sort of imposes other meters and other grooves and stuff and makes you go, 'Hmm…'. And that also adds to the mix in terms of what our possibilities are in terms of giving writers’ music and others in the gypsy milieu a hood pass, because we also just don’t deal with just Reinhardt/[Stephane] Grappelli stuff. Gustav Mahler was one of Reinhardt’s predecessors. And we go all over with it.”