Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of speaking with the jazz saxophonist, James Carter. Carter came onto the jazz scene in the early 90s and it was instantly clear that he was to be a major figure. While what attracts many people to his music is the intrigue of a single man who can play so many types of saxophones and clarinets, what has people coming back to his music time and time again is the incredible power that he generates. Listening to James Carter is like being attacked with sound, its completely oppressive. He is also an incredible ballad player who can literally move you to tears.
Carter’s last album was Present Tense released in 2008. Mainly in the quintet format, this album presents the variety in Carter’s oeuvre, from fast paced blues, to slow ballads, a salute to the free jazz musician Eric Dolphy, and a bossa nova song. He also recently participated on Gold Sounds, an album with an all-star line up of Cyrus Chestnut, Reginald Veal and Ali Jackson that is a tribute to the music of Pavement. In 2000 Carter did an album saluting Django Reinhardt called Chasing the Gypsy which made it onto several top 10 lists of the past decade. Also of note is the 2003 album Gardenias for Lady Day.
We appreciated the time James Carter spent with us and we are excited to bring you the transcript of our conversation.
A lot of people know you for the large variety of saxophones that you play, how did you start to get into learning all these saxophones?
[Laughs] Well, I started playing back in 1980 and I trace my involvement with music and particularly with the saxophone as a sort of revelation because it happened in certain spurts. I’m from a musical family, and I’m the youngest of five and as a result I always had musical instruments and people that played them around the house; whether it be siblings or cousins or what not. But they were mostly into top 40 R & B, tunes of the day in the 70s and stuff when I was growing up. Jazz didn’t really come in until a little later, it was always around the house but it didn’t hit me until a time when my Mom was around doing chores and she’d have a jazz station on that is now not operating, it was wjzz back in Detroit. So she’d be doing the chores and various people would come on, mostly the vocalists and mostly the usual suspects: Billie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae, and what not. Just to see her in a happy mood, I kinda gravitated towards that and thought that’s good merriment. The vocalists were one thing, but it always seemed like there was this horn, this sound that would come in between, either during the vocal chorus or right after. It always got to me, it was always the qualities that these horns had and I came to find out that this was the saxophone, so I was attracted to its sound first. Then I was able to see pictures of it not through the jeweled cd boxes, but on the actual album covers, which gave you the full up and close personal look of the cat holding the horn. And most of the time it would be the old Selmer Saxophones and I was really like “Wow! That is bad!” so I was attracted from this point by the physical attribute. I was hooked from those two things. And as fate would have it, sometime later my oldest brother played in a group called By Nature’s Divide and the saxophonist came to be a boarder with us. So now, all of a sudden there were saxophones in my house. So, after the saxophone chooses me it further seals the deal by putting one in the house with us so it was a done deal after that.
Could you talk about your last album, Present Tense? Who is the band on it and what’s it all about?
Present Tense was more or less to get back into the loop of things; I hadn’t recorded in a bit. I’ve always been a fan of eclectic mixes. There are certain pieces that I felt in need of a bit of a longer reading that didn’t have one at the time and at least be brought to light like “Dodo’s Bounce,” and then a few originals on there too. It was a nice eclectic mix. At the same time, I wanted to make a brief yet meaningful statement on the compositions. The people that were involved on the recording were Dwight Adams on trumpet, D.D. Jackson, James Genus on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Rodney Jones on guitar, Eli Fountain. During that time it was about getting back into ecclectical statements by dealing with various pieces from the Diaspora. I also had just started playing a particular brand of horn called P. Mauriat out of Taiwan. If you go and look at the artwork on the inner sleeve, it’s the first time I’m really showing allegiance to this one company, because over the years I’ve played and endorsed various instruments but never really took it to print as I have with P. Mauriat.
What is Sierra’s Saxophone Concerto and how did you get involved with that project?
Roberto Sierra had come to quite a few performances of mine through the years and it came to a head in November of 2001. I was playing with Kathleen Battle in Baltimore and my manager brought him backstage, they were mutual associates. So she made the formal introduction, and he was like “I really like what you’re doing and I’d like to write a concerto for you.” I kinda reluctantly said “okay, you certain about that?” Something along that line had happened the year before but I wasn’t able to take advantage of it because I already had enough on my plate touring the Layin’ in the Cut and the Chasin’ the Gypsy albums simultaneously so I wasn’t able to do it, but it was a Dutch composer who had the same ambitions but he already had his music scored and I wasn’t able to do it. With Roberto’s piece, I was in it from scratch. The following month, in December, we met at a mid-town studio and he showed me some sketches of various musical ideas he had and I played some of them so he could hear me and we started developing on the ideas that we were to go on. Every other month after that I was getting a new movement from him until I had the whole thing in about June or July and got it ready for it’s world premiere in October of 2002. It has been kind of a staple ever since then. I’m still learning how to play it.
You had an album a few years ago that was a tribute to Pavement, and I was wondering how you brought their music to jazz and why you choose to do this album?
The Brown Brothers got in touch with us on that. They out the band together from their favorite jazz musicians and they presented us with the idea doing the music of Pavement and they wanted to see what we could come up with. I had previously known of Pavement through Beavis and Butthead, because they do their video montages between episodes and “Country Air” was on one of them. So I kinda knew about them from that standpoint. I looked at one of the cds they gave us as source material and I heard the “Country Air” thing and I was like, “Okay, I know where I’m at now.” And we just went from there. It certainly helped that we were able to all get together in Jimi Hendrix’s studio, I think that the studio itself had creativity in the air and that really brought it home.
What’s next for you? Are you planning another album, or are you about to go on tour?
I’m planning on finishing this album with the Sierra Concerto, and there’s another piece that goes along with it that my cousin [the violinist] Regina [Carter] and I are double soloists on with a string quartet that is called “Caribbean Rhapsody.” The remainder of the album will probably be some solo pieces. And I’m looking on going out on a couple of tours, my own and I’m going to tour Dee Dee [Bridgewater]’s album on Billie Holliday, Eleanor Fagan which is looking at being released this year.
Lastly, do you have any recommendations for our readers?
I just really recommend keeping your ears open and anything that feels or sounds good to you and sound it to the rafters, let other people in on that feeling and let it continue to spread. We need all the good vibes and positive feelings that we can muster. Wherever it comes from, don’t let the catalyst be.