Saxophone Great Rocks the Hall

Mark Stryker
Detroit News Music Critic—19 October 2002

It is a rare concert in which Detroit Symphony Orchestra music director Neeme Jarvi is not the most spontaneous musician on stage. But until this week, Jarvi had never worked with James Carter, the Detroit-born jazz saxophonist who plays with the unpredictability and vehemence of a volcano.

Carter, the soloist at the center of Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra, makes a striking impression in the piece, given its world premiere at Orchestra Hall Thursday. The music, commissioned by the DSO and written for Carter, shows off his brilliant technical command of the tenor and soprano saxes and carves out space for improvisation in which his ideas burst like fireworks.

But, as dominant as Carter‘s personality is — reflected in both his aggressive playing and his peacock presence — credit must go to Sierra for devising a concerto that allows Carter to be Carter without trampling Sierra’s own voice as a composer.  Jazz composers, notably Duke Ellington, long ago perfected this two-way mirror trick; but such an organic fusion of soloist and composer is unusual in the classical world, especially in third-stream marriages of jazz and classical ideas.

The concerto’s animated opening movement, based on a zippy Latin-American rhythm that darts through the orchestra, illuminates Sierra’s strategy. Echoing Carter‘s style, Sierra gives him furiously skittering phrases that zip from the basement of the tenor sax into the stratosphere. Carter‘s personal articulation and tone — his wide, intensely throbbing vibrato owes nothing to Marcel Mule and everything to a curious cross between Ben Webster and Albert Ayler — give these written lines the illusion of improvisation. Sierra turns the music completely over to Carter only a few bars at a time, so that his improvised phrases suggest fluttering elaboration rather than a complete departure from the score. Sierra’s orchestration is sunlit with bright punches of brass. After such an engagingly abstract start, the second movement, marked “Tender,” almost sounds too conventional, with a precious children’s song melody for soprano saxophone. A brief cadenza found Carter enlarging his orbit from the score with sliding pitches way above the written range of the horn.

Carter switches between tenor and soprano in the rollicking 3/8 scherzo. Scampering triplets and hee-hawing rhythms scoot through percussion. In the long tenor cadenza that leads to the finale, Carter used Sierra’s skipping rhythms to launch his solo, but then he ran through his bag of tricks — slap-tonguing, growls, harmonics and brash flurries — in an arbitrary way that for the first time was disconnected from Sierra’s canvas.

An infectious but nutty boogie-woogie closes the piece with chugging riffs carried by mallet percussion and winds. Carter and the DSO soared, and Jarvi, whose sense of swing is unparalleled among maestros, built the tension into an explosive release, matched only by the audience roar that followed.

The rest of the program bore no aesthetic kinship to the concerto. “The Golden Spinning Wheel” is facile Dvorak. Sergei Taneyev’s little-known Fourth Symphony was worth hearing, but not necessarily after such a quintessentially American experience as Sierra’s concerto.


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.