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‘Bad’ James Carter as good as it gets in ‘Present Tense’

Jon W. Poses
Columbia Tribune—25 May 2008

Detroit has always produced great jazz artists: The list of performers who made their way to New York in the 1940s includes the likes of the Jones Brothers, pianist Hank, trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin; vibraphonist Milt Jackson; pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris; saxophonist/flutist Yusef Lateef; trombonist Curtis Fuller; and the great guitarist Kenny Burrell – and that’s the tip of the iceberg. I chose them because they were all playing at the same time in Detroit. Now there’s an impressive “local” scene. The striking part of this bit of jazz history is that the lineage of those emanating from the Motor City never quite seems to stop.

Two of today’s more significant musicians, violinist Regina Carter and multi-instrumentalist James Carter – cousins – are Detroiters.

On this occasion, we turn our attention to James Carter, who has just released “Present Tense” (EmArcy/Decca). Carter is what has been traditionally referred to in the business as a “monster”: He is as “bad” as they come – and on several instruments. He reminds me of David Murray when he plays the tenor, so it’s not surprising he occasionally has worked with the World Saxophone Quartet, the adventurous all-horn group.

That really doesn’t do him justice, however, because he plays in all styles – in, out, bluesy, wailing along, etc. – and does so with equal verve, drive and zest on all the horns, including bass clarinet and soprano, tenor and alto saxophones, not to mention flute. Carter is not a jack-of-all-trades: He has total command of all of these instruments.

What first caught my attention with “Present Tense” – because, to tell the truth, sometimes Carter can play too many notes for my taste, which I think detracts from his expression – was the fact that Michael Cuscuna produced this recording. I figured if anyone could rein in Carter and add to the proceedings as a non-musician, it would be Cuscuna, who is most associated with Mosaic Records, his completist specialty label, and Blue Note Records, where he has produced countless titles.

So having him as producer intrigued me enough to give Carter’s disc a spin or two or three. Equally important to Cuscuna’s presence is that the band assembled for “Present Tense” houses some eye-popping musicianship. In other words, you pick up the disc, see that Cuscuna produced it and then notice that Carter is joined in the studio by versatile and wonderfully articulate pianist D.D. Jackson – check out his playing on “Hymn of the Orient” – and stalwart bassist James Genus. Then there’s drummer Victor Lewis, who is simply tough to beat; Lewis has had it all for a long time – all the way back to his work as a member of Dexter Gordon’s group in the late 1970s.

Trumpeter/ flugelhornist Dwight Adams rounds out the quintet, although I must confess I was unfamiliar with his playing; no matter, his work here shows he belongs in the major leagues. Guitarist Rodney Jones and a second percussionist, Eli Fountain, augment the core five-piece ensemble.

Carter and company swing and rip through a 10-spot of tunes beautifully laying out tracks such as “Shadowy Sands” and “Tenderly” – where the bandleader shows delightful pacing and restraint. And then there’s his reading of Dave Burns’ “Rapid Shave,” a hard-driving blues, and Gigi Gryce’s aforementioned “Hymn of the Orient,” which opens with Lewis’ brush work and then simply kicks in and smokes as Carter puts out a baritone saxophone solo that mirrors Jackson’s keyboard and makes it impossible not to smile in appreciation.

It is difficult to believe Carter, who burst onto the New York scene in 1990, is not yet out of his 30s. He has already issued a bevy of recordings under his own name and has been asked to play on probably three times that many titles by his colleagues.

He has a great sense of jazz history, too. On any number of pieces and during any number of passages within different compositions on “Present Tense,” he pays homage to those who preceded him; he offers myriad stylings throughout; and it’s essential to note that Carter steers way clear of simply imitating others.

His interpretation of bebop pianist Dodo Marmarosa’s “Dodo’s Bounce” places him on flute, which fits impeccably with Jones’ nylon-stringed guitar work. There’s a perfectly light approach here. Meanwhile his “Bro. Dolphy” is an in-your-face original that offers a nod to the always challenging but ever engaging and masterful Eric Dolphy’s work.

Carter said “Present Tense” represents where he is today. Seems plausible to me: On “Present Tense” Carter demonstrates an overall depth and versatility as he moves from one cut to the next. That is likely where Cuscuna came to the fore as producer. The end result is a fine recording.

Other recordings to note:

Tribune columnist Jon Poses also serves as the executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. He can be reached via e-mail at jazznbsbl@socket.net.

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Whether he’s playing tenor or soprano sax, shows off a sweet, sinuous tone; when he reinterprets Reinhardt’s classic Nuages with a bass sax, the muscular sound is distancing at first, but then it wraps itself around the listener like an anaconda.
-Christopher John Farley, TIME

Make no mistake: Carter…who has emerged as one of the brightest stars in jazzdom, was the man. His performance was nothing short of a virtuoso clinic, a toe-tapping, heart-stopping, smile making romp.
- Lawrence B. Johnson, DETROIT NEWS