Music Review: James Carter – Present Tense

Blogcritics Magazine Music—23 May 2008

Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary on jazz spent nearly all its time on the history up to 1960 and little afterwards. The implication was that jazz stopped becoming revolutionary and more evolutionary after Ornette Coleman ushered in the “new thing” at the beginning of the sixties. Thus, there was little time spent on the notable jazz musicians of today. One of the few who got the spotlight, however, was James Carter.

As someone who is proficient in a wide variety of saxophones and other wind instruments while possessing a tone that is distinctive but derivative of the past, Carter earned all those accolades heaped on him. There are few artists out there who can expertly bring a fresh take on trad jazz, and the vocabulary he brings to nearly every song he plays is wider than the wingspan of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. It’s the product of his voracious appetite for soaking in vintage jazz records during his childhood.

When you hear Carter play the saxophone, it’s pretty unmistakable that it’s him: he’s got the soul of Lester Young, the grit of Eddie Harris, and the technical proficiency of John Coltrane. He sounds like someone from a couple of generations earlier than his time, yet he would have been considered a revolutionary had he existed and played like that back then. That’s because musically, he exists in no particular era; he pushes ahead to avant garde while glancing back at the old masters for driving directions.

Throughout Carter’s recording career, many facets of his influences and styles have been revealed, tackling classic tunes on Jurassic Classics, organ jazz on In Carterian Fashion to free funk in Layin’ In The Cut. Since most of his records center on a theme of some sort, one had to listen to much of his discography to get a good grasp of what he’s capable of. While Carter’s first record as a leader came out way back in 1993 (JC on the Set), the release of Present Tense this past Tuesday finally provides the proper introduction to his music.

Encouraged by the well-regarded producer Michael Cuscuna, Carter used the occasion of his inaugural Verve release to place a heaping cross-section of his many facets within a small combo format on one disc. While it might lack in the coherency of a typical Carter album, it more than makes up by the breathtaking mastery of styles on display in a single collection.

The wide array of styles shown here is helped along by also playing a wide array of instruments. On Present Tense, Carter at various times hauls out a soprano, tenor and bartione sax. He also throws in flute and bass clarinet. Think of a Rahsaan Roland Kirk record being played one instrument at a time.

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.