Spontaneous combustion

"The great thing about Detroit is you could hear any type of music. You could hear Motown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Latin music, classical and jazz. I think all that seeped into my unconscious and it just comes out in my music." So says violinist Regina Carter, returning home to refuel this weekend at the 1998 Ford Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival.

Carter carries passion and fire inside her violin. Her music can be described as Stephane Grappelli meets the Mothership. It doesn't matter if she's wailing on a bebop standard or a slamming dance number by Chaka Khan. Carter plays with such raw energy that she has to keep firefighters backstage to extinguish the flames from her violin solos. She refuses to shackle her creativity.

"I don't define my music. I just pick music I like to play. Growing up in Detroit, of course we had a huge Latin community. Lyman (Woodard) really got me into Latin music. He had globs of tapes that we listened to," she recalls. Detroit's diverse musical culture fuels her music and she fuses those influences without them smothering her jazz roots.

Seven years ago, Carter packed up her Detroit musical experience and moved to New York. Since then, she has headlined at the legendary jazz club Sweet Basil, and worked with Wynton Marsalis and the String Trio of New York. She's also shared a double bill with Kenny Garrett, and set her audience and violin ablaze in Europe and Japan. Carter has recorded two "cross genre" jazz albums: Regina Carter and Something for Grace. The latter is dedicated to her mother who stopped apathy from ruining Carter's creativity.

At age 6, Carter began violin lessons. She started playing professionally as a teenager, eventually touring with Brainstorm, a local funk band. At Oakland University, she sharpened her skills by studying European classical and African-American music.

"When I first got hooked, I was listening to Jean-Luc Ponty and Noel Pointer. After a while, a big band teacher told me, 'Don't listen to too much of that and copy, because you're going to start sounding like them.' He told me to start listening to horn players."

Her real jazz education began at Cobb's Corner, a legendary Detroit venue in the Cass Corridor. Carter earned her chops at dusk-to-dawn jam sessions and endless rehearsals with organist Lyman Woodard and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Woodard hired her after she had proven herself.

"We used to go over Marcus' house -- me and Bob Hurst and a few other people -- and we would be there all day rehearsing and learning about different elements of the music. With Marcus, it was like being at music camp. We might work on one song all week. He would talk about soloing, compositions and different ways to approach the music. So going to his house was like summer camp."

Jazz critics and purists sometimes downplay her music -- they say it lacks depth. She admits that criticism used to cut deep, but she continues to experiment, challenging critics to move beyond their old definitions of jazz.

"Somebody's going to always have something to say no matter what you do. If I do an acoustic record, which I plan to do next, somebody will have something to say about that. I can't worry about that. All I can do is give people the best that I can give them. And everybody's not going to like it.

"So many people are stuck on saying, 'Well, you're not this or you're not that.' That's not what music is about. It's about how does the music touch," she says. " I'm coming out of what I experienced musically growing up in Detroit ... I'm not trying to be a bebop player. I'm not trying to be an avant-garde player or a Latin player. I'm just playing music that I grew up with."

Although she thrives on performing with different musicians, sometimes she gets homesick. Detroit jazz musicians, she says, play with more energy than other musicians she's performed with; she loves to play with Phil Lasley and Leonard King.

"The musicians at home play so great and people outside of Detroit may have never heard of them ... And the fire that comes out of (them), that's what I really miss. I just love the energy of the musicians at home."

For her homecoming, she plans to reunite with Lyman Woodard and engage in a long-overdue battle of the violinists with John Blake, a musician she studied in her youth.

"It will be me going to school. We're going to have a lesson stage," she promises.

It's clear that Regina Carter never stops nurturing her musical roots -- but her goal is to blaze a trail deeper into her own sense of sound. Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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