Review: James Carter Wows Fans at SF Jazz Fest

Jim Harrington
Oakland Tribune—10 September 2010

It was billed like a clash of the titans, yet one of the colossal talents stood taller than all the rest.

Saxophonist James Carter overshadowed everyone else onstage at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Thursday night, during a San Francisco Jazz Festival show that also featured acclaimed organist John Medeski, That’s not a knock on Medeski — nor on guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist Ralphe Armstrong or drummer Lee Pearson — as much as recognition of a jazz fact: It’s near impossible to compete against Carter.

The 41-year-old Detroit native, a three-time winner of Down Beat magazine’s baritone saxophonist of the year trophy, is one of the most muscular and forceful players in jazz history The things he can do on sax — baritone, tenor or soprano — leave crowds awestruck.

The ensemble was celebrating the recent CD “Heaven on Earth,” a true all-star effort led by Carter and featuring Medeski, Rogers, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Joey Baron, Nearly all the selections performed during the almost 2-hour show hailed from “Heaven on Earth,” and, indeed, managed to live up to the album’s title, Unfortunately, McBride and Baron couldn’t make it to the SFJAZZ show, but Armstrong and Pearson proved to be suitable substitutes.

The quintet kicked off the concert with a manic workout of the Lucky Thompson composition “Slam’s Mishap,” which, like every other song in the set list, was highlighted by Carter’s tornado-like approach to the saxophone. Looking sharp in a well-tailored suit and matching T-shirt, Carter folded his notes together like musical origami, shooting through the first lead of the night with a machine-gun tempo and the accuracy of an expert marksman.

It was such an awesome display of pure talent and ability that anything that immediately followed was, of course, going to be a letdown, Rogers drew the short straw and his guitar lead felt like nothing more than a soft breeze in the wake of a hurricane, Even the great Medeski — best known for his work in the jam-rock/jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood — had a hard time registering with a crowd that had just been scorched by Carter’s pyrotechnics.

Carter reached even greater heights on “Mad Lad Returns,” doing things on the Bari sax that I’ve never seen done before, He took the instrument, the lowest-pitched sax that is commonly used in jazz groups, and produced a huge range of sounds, from shrill cries and trumpet-like calls to guttural bellows and funky, bouncy rhythms, He terrorized that sturdy instrument, working it well beyond the manufacturer’s recommended limits, to the point where I almost expected it to sprout legs and run from the stage.

Carter was equally impressive on soprano, especially during a slightly slinky version of “Quiet Dawn,” as well as on tenor, The band also proved comfortable in a variety of musical settings, including gypsy jazz (Django Reinhardt’s “Diminishing”), bluesy balladry (“Streets of Dreams”) and driving rock (the album’s title track, which closed the main set).

The songs, especially early on, were stretched out into funky, mesmerizing jams. The first three songs lasted just over an hour, the next four (including t he encore) clocked in at just under It was delightful evening of jazz improvisation from five masters, it’s just that one proved more masterful than the rest.

Read Jim Harrington’s Concert Blog.

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.