Violinist Regina Carter has just finished practicing. She’s in a hotel room in Richmond, Va., waiting for room service. She wants to fuel up because she’s rehearsing with bassist Christian McBride in a few hours. Then she’s leaving for a pair of dates in Boston, followed by a trip to Traverse City to play with pianist Bob James, and then to headline the Detroit Festival of the Arts. Europe comes next.
You wonder if Carter ever takes breaks from her touring schedule. Last month, she performed in Switzerland, Spain and Italy. From Italy she traveled to a gig in Atlanta, after which her band returned to New York, but Carter flew to this gig in Richmond.
During her adolescence, the Detroit native was prepped for this fast-paced existence. She picked up the violin at age 4, joined the Symphony Civic Orchestra at 12, and as a teenager toured with a funk-fusion ensemble called Brainstorm. But Carter began gaining recognition while a member of Straight Ahead. In 1991, she moved to New York City. A few years later, she signed with Atlantic Records and recorded a pair of albums, Regina Carter and Something For Grace. She switched to the Verve label and has since released Rhythms of the Heart, Motor City Moments and Paganini: After a Dream.
She admits that she’s scared when asked about her reluctance to slow down.
“It’s funny, you know, because I was supposed to take December off. That is usually my slow time, anyway. But my mom had a major operation. So I took that month off to take care of her. That was my downtime, unfortunately. I’m always too nervous to take time off any other time of the year because of the way things are going economically. A lot of festivals are closing down, and there aren’t a lot of places to play in Europe, which used to be mainstay of every jazz musician.”
Carter, now 42, asserts that jazz is in despair. The labels are folding, money is short, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get records made. It’s emblematic of the music industry as a whole.
Industry slump or no, you can bet that Carter’s a musician who will weather the adversity. Her music is still evolving. Ten years ago, she was all fire; she played so rambunctiously that it looked as if her violin would burst into flames; her performances were both exhilarating and exhausting. But that was then. Nowadays, Carter has blossomed into a finesse player. When her bow graces the violin strings it’s like silk sliding across a bare breast.
“I hope that I have matured, but that is left up to other people to say,” she says. “I think what I have gotten away from is having a need to wow the audience. That was something I would definitely get into when I was younger. Sometimes it creeps in and I have to stop myself. But sometimes it comes up when I get nervous.”
For the last five years, Carter has been sort of a jazz grad student. Playing with bassist Ray Brown she learned how to swing, and pianist Kenny Barron taught her about grace and comportment, stressing that — no matter how unbearable the critics and label execs get — she had to keep swinging.
A young Carter developed her jazz skills under tutelage from trumpeter Marcus Belgrave in the mid-’80s.
“When she first came to me she had been playing with Lyman Woodard for a few years and she wanted to learn how to play jazz,” says Belgrave in a separate interview. “When I first heard her, I knew that she would reach the top because of her seriousness. She was very quiet and she didn’t ask a lot of questions. She was more concerned with technique than being flamboyant. I used to put her and cats like Kenny Garrett and Bob Hurst in hot and deep water to see if they would sink or swim. Regina always came up swimming. … Her progress as a musician has been tremendous and extreme.”
While working with Belgrave and jamming at Detroit’s legendary Cobb’s Corner, did the violinist ever imagine she’d one day be this successful?
“I kind of hoped that I would, and I guess as a very young child, before I knew anything about jazz, I knew that I loved being on the stage. And I knew that I had kept up with the classical music. I didn’t want to play in an orchestra. I wanted to be a soloist, and I wanted to tour the world. Once I was exposed to this music there were certain artists I envisioned playing with, people like Oliver Lake and Kenny Barron,” she recalls.
In late 2002, Carter got a chance to play the priceless Niccolo Paganini violin in a one-off performance in Genoa, Italy. (The instrument — which has it own police escort — belonged to the brilliant Italian violinist and composer Paganini, who was saddled with rumors that he’d sold his soul to the devil). Carter was the first jazz musician to ever play it, and went through a tedious background check for the privilege.
“It was a very difficult process because the people in Italy didn’t know who I was. They saw pictures of me with a pickup under the violin with a caption that read I would never play without a pickup on the violin. Then they interviewed me about who I had studied with, what schools I had gone to, what strings I use, all this stuff. At first I was really offended by all the questions. Then I learned that they take all the violinists who are going to play the instrument through the same rigorous [interview] process. They gave me permission to play it three weeks before Christmas.
Once she was given the green light, finding proper funding to make the show a complete success was difficult. She believed in it so much that she went into her personal savings and flew select journalists and her band over for the performance.
Was she tense about handling such an instrument and did her old “need to wow the audience” creep in?
“I was so nervous, and I heard my mother’s voice say, ‘Play “Amazing Grace.”’ So that is what I did. I said if I play that, it would smooth all the energy.”
When she finished the number, people were crying. The show was such a success that the instrument was taken to New York where Carter did a repeat performance at the Lincoln Center. Her label was pleased enough to fund a studio recording with the violin, which resulted in last year’s Paganini: After a Dream.
Carter doesn’t plan to slow down. When the current touring schedule ends, she’s headed back into the studio to record a new album.
At the end of the interview, Carter explains that she’s taking time off in September to marry her drummer, Alvester Garnett.
Any plans to settle down after the honeymoon? No way, she says. She’s hitting the road again.
The Regina Carter Quintet performs Saturday, June 12, at the Detroit Festival of the Arts (5:30 p.m. Masco/Metro Times Stage by the Detroit Science Center). Her mentor Marcus Belgrave precedes her on this stage at 3 p.m. Go to detroitfestival.com for more info.
Find out about more musical acts at the Detroit Festival of the Arts.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]