James Carter Jazzes DSO Audience

Lawrence B. Johnson
Detroit News Music Critic—19 October 2002

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra made a rockin’ return to its home roost Thursday night, unleashing the homegrown gifts of saxophonist James Carter in the world premiere of a concerto that sent the crowd wild.

If that doesn’t sound like a typical night in a classical subscription season, trust me — it wasn’t. And not just because the DSO was back at Orchestra Hall after a summerlong remodeling project.

You read accounts of premieres 150 years ago where the audience clamored to have movements repeated. In your lifetime, did you ever witness such a thing — the reprise of a new work, on the spot? Neither did I, until Thursday night, when Carter and conductor Neeme Jarvi finally gave in to a storm that showed no signs of abating and recapped the last long stretch of Roberto Sierra’s brilliant “Concerto for Saxophones.”

Sierra, who teaches at Cornell University, was present to share in the exuberant applause. His three-movement concerto, which has the soloist switching off between tenor and soprano saxophones, is a delight and a thriller, idiomatic and challenging in its jazzy language, affecting in its bluesy-ballad turns, electrifying in its solo flights and as colorfully fashioned for the orchestra as it is for the man with the horn.

And make no mistake: Carter, the 33-year-old Detroit native 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. He is the complete musician, a technician with no apparent limits and a poet of deep sensibility. Indeed, Carter’s eloquent turn through the concerto’s balladlike slow movement drew an early ovation.

It was the finale, however, that blew off the roof. Carter’s extended cadenza — more like a soulful, mercurial soliloquy — on tenor sax, midway through the movement, touched off a blazing, syncopated home stretch that had the DSO ripping like a jazz band, Jarvi dancing on the podium and Carter merrily tossing off riffs that matched blinding speed with gorgeous colors.

The audience exploded. A glowing Carter took bow after bow as Jarvi stood deferentially aside. At length, conductor and soloist consulted briefly, pages were turned — and Carter began spinning a gossamer little solo of — what? — “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Well, he needed something to cue up the band and get everybody back to that spot in the concerto’s finale where — bam! — they were all off to the races once more, blowing down the walls and sweeping several hundred normally rational folks to the borders of delirium.


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

There were passages in the program, especially during pieces such as Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me,” in which Carter played with a surprisingly soft and tender sound, his improvisations filled with subtle melodic paraphrases. At other times, he added an appealing, burry edge to his tone—the result calling up images, on soprano saxophone, of Sidney Bechet.