Double identity

Jun 21, 2000 at 12:00 am
The question about James Carter has never been whether or not he can play his horn; he is one of the most amazing saxophonists of his generation.

It’s not just because of his technical proficiency, which all by itself is enough to terrify the faint of heart, but Carter delivers coherent ideas and honest emotional expressions in the midst of all those technically proficient flurries. He can actually hold an intelligible musical conversation at both light speed and slow speed, an ability reminiscent of other rare birds such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

But the question which seems to continually pop up about Carter is why all these qualities don’t consistently appear on his recorded efforts, which have been somewhat uneven. On his two most recent releases – each dramatically different from the other – some listeners may feel that Carter is still trying to find his absolute voice. I’d like to think that he’s still growing, maturing and searching. Sometimes these things can be hard to capture properly on disc.

On Layin’ in the Cut, Carter takes the path of electric jazz, oft-reviled by the acoustic jazz purist types who never forgave Miles for Bitches Brew. But for more open-minded sorts, Carter covers some interesting ground with a tight group of musicians (guitarist Marc Ribot, and three players associated with the Ornette Coleman harmolodic school: guitarist Jef Lee Johnson, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Cornell Rochester) who fuse the elements of funk, rock and jazz. They create a terrain where Carter is not quite at home just yet, but where he seems to be finding his way in an increasingly sure-footed fashion with each new song.

On Chasin’ the Gypsy, Carter sounds more comfortable surrounded by an acoustic environment, which includes the welcome presence of his cousin and fellow hometown musician, former Straight Ahead violinist Regina Carter. The presence of both nylon and steel string guitars, not to mention an accordion, also adds a unique texture to this Django Reinhardt-inspired album.

Great stuff.