The Irrepressible James Carter: A High Wire Act With No Net

Mario Carrington
Jazz Police—10 Dec 2008

The first show of a two night engagement by the multi-instrumentalist James Carter and his band at The Dakota in Minneapolis last night was an exceptional musical performance. In a previous appearance at the club Carter said, “if the planets once again become aligned in harmonization which would allow us to meet again, that would be a good thing.” They are and it is a very good thing.

The quintet features Corey Wilkes (trumpet), Gerard Gibb (piano), Ralph Armstrong (bass), and Leonard King (drums).

Carter had his instruments of mass entertainment (flute, bass clarinet, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones) laid out on a table on stage like a surgeon waiting to operate and expertly performed with each of them during the evening. Carter bends the notes but doesn’t break them, stretching them to the outer limits of their register. He attacked and caressed the various reed instruments during tempo, tone, texture & chord changes within the compositions played.

Carter is multi-faceted in his playing; at times he could be called an “egg scrambler” in the mode of the early Wayne Shorter and gone too soon Eric Dolphy. Other times he could be economical in his phrasing and layer on as much texture to a ballad as Dexter Gordon. Still other times he would bring to mind Charles Lloyd, as he would allow the moment to dictate how far out he would search for the notes.

Carter has stage command & presence, elusive qualities to describe but you know when you see it. He was engaging with the audience and he & his band mates were having fun on stage.

The electric vibe created by the band running through the club was energizing and they received a standing ovation at the end of the show.

The quintet played 6 songs in a 75 minute set. Carter featured a number of songs from his excellent, stylistically varied, latest CD entitled Present Tense (EmArcy Records), where he displays his musical prowess on the bass clarinet, flute, tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones. Selections played included “Bossa J.C.,””Bro. Dolphy,””Song Of Delilah” and “Por Que Ma Vie Demeure.”

The concert opened with a composition called “Chant In The Night” and the band was simmering from the first note proceeding to rise to a full boil with blistering call and response exchanges between Carter, Gibbs, Armstrong and King.

“Bro. Dolphy” opens and closes in the intense, full throttle, wide open manner of its’ namesake, and in between there are intense solos by each member of the band with Carter emphatically concluding the sequence on the bass clarinet.

“Song Of Delilah” is worth the price of admission by itself. The number begins with an extended progressive introduction, followed by Carter bridging to the first chorus and then the musical exchanges alternate between what was called “free jazz” and funk. It features Gibb pounding the piano in a Brubeckian manner, Wilkes riffing while puffing his cheeks in a Gillespiesque style, Carter improvising like Ornette Coleman while his rhythm section simultaneously channels Motown1s Funk Brothers.

It was a majestic journey designed to expand your musical sensibilities and should not be missed.


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.