Walking a Tightrope in the “Present Tense”: James Carter at the Dakota, December 9–10

Andrea Canter
Jazz Police—06 December 2008

“I want to play a piece differently every time. That’s a hell of a tightrope walk. But when you have different attacks in your arsenal, it’s a much easier balancing act.” –James Carter

With a raft of accolades surrounding his most recent recording, and again riding the top of the Downbeat Critics Poll as Baritone Saxophonist of the Year, James Carter is on a tear—he’s tearing up the stage wherever he goes, from the Detroit Jazz Festival to Manhattan’s Jazz Standard to the Playboy Jazz Cruise. A popular act in the Twin Cities, Carter returns to the Dakota Jazz Club with his touring quintet and a set list drawn from the new Present Tense and beyond. And he’ll likely need a valet to help carry in his musical arsenal, one of the widest arrays of woodwinds in the repertoire of a single touring artist.

James Carter and Quintet

A native of Detroit, James Carter’s family exposed him to a wide range of music, from Hendrix to P-Funk to Miles. Frustrated by the rigidity of band instruction in high school, Carter sought private lessons from local reedman (and current Twin Cities resident) Donald Washington, whom he now refers to as his “musical father.” Recalled Carter, “He said that you could have ideas up the wazoo, but if you don’t have a sound to convey these ideas and permeate the human soul, it’s like a tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear it.” Washington also introduced young Carter to the baritone sax. “Discovered” by Wynton Marsalis and Lester Bowie, Carter at 17 was playing with the Marsalis Quintet, later joining Bowie in his New Organ Ensemble in New York.

From that point, Carter quickly rose to the forefront of young sax lions, playing with Julius Hemphill, Betty Carter, and with the Marsalis Big Band at Lincoln Center.

Carter’s career as solo artist and bandleader was launched in 1994 with his first release for Atlantic, The Real Quiet Storm, and Sony’s American issue of JC on the Set (which had been released a year earlier in Japan); a series of acclaimed recordings followed. Reflecting his growing and diverse tastes, Carter went totally electric with Layin’ in the Cut (2000), followed by a sharp left turn back to acoustics with an album celebrating the music of Django Reinhardt, Chasin’ the Gypsy (featuring cousin Regina Carter). Although not released until 2004 on Warner Brothers, Carter returned to Detroit in 2001 to make record Live at Bakers’ Keyboard Lounge; and back with Sony, Carter released a tribute to Billie Holiday, Gardenias for Lady Day, in 2003. Carter’s most recent projects involve his organ trio (Out of Nowhere, Half Note, 2004) and Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers, 2005), setting the rock music of Pavement into jazz forms and featuring pianist Cyrus Chestnut. Present Tense (EmMarcy, 2008) is his first release in three years.

Not limited to wowing audiences with his sheer musical power, Carter played the role of Ben Webster in Robert Altman’s film, Kansas City, and has maintained a connection to classical music through tours with the Kathleen Battle and the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra. Among many accolades and honors, James Carter recently was the recipient of the Dr. Alaine Locke Award from the Detroit Institute of Arts and Friends of African and African American Art for individuals who have provided exemplary service and leadership in the promotion of African American culture. Carter has been a multi-year winner or runner-up of Downbeat’s critics and readers polls as Baritone Saxophonist of the Year, including his recently announced Readers’ Poll award for 2008.

Carter’s current touring quintet of mostly fellow Detroit musicians includes trumpeter Corey Wilkes, keyboardist Gerard Gibb, bassist Ralphe Armstrong and drummer Leonard King. Chicago native Wilkes intersects Carter at Lester Bowie, whom he replaced in the Art Ensemble of Chicago about five years ago. He’s performed with Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, James Moody, Will Calhoun and Roscoe Mitchell, and tours throughout Europe, Africa and South America. Fellow Detroiter and protégé of the late Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy Smith, organ/keyboard monster Gerard Gibbs has toured and recorded with James Carter’s organ trio and quintet. He leads his own Organized Crime and performs with contemporary jazz musicians Marion Meadows and Ronnie Laws. Another Detroit native, bassist Ralphe Armstrong played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra as a teenager in the 70s, performed with Jean Luc-Ponty and Zappa, and more recently has kept company with Eddie Harris, Curtis Mayfield and D-12, as well as with James Carter. Drummer Leonard King, a Detroit native who now resides in the Twin Cities, has been the anchor of the James Carter Organ Trio while also maintaining a busy teaching career. His resume includes work with Donald Byrd, Paquito D’Rivera, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Griffin, David Murray, T-Bone Walker, Bobby Watson, Regina Carter, Herb Ellis, and Alvin Batiste.

Present Tense

The new release finds Carter on most of his horns—soprano, tenor and bari sax, bass clarinet and flute. He’s surrounded by fine company, including trumpeter/flugelhornist Dwight Adams, pianist D.D. Jackson, bassist James Genus, and drummer Victor Lewis; along with guitarist Rodney Jones and percussionist Eli Fountain on several tracks. Notes Carter, “I titled this album Present Tense because it captures where I am right now…what appeals to me right now. I’ve always had eclectic tastes, so the styles of these pieces are diverse. But I’m also dealing with more lyricism on this album, and I’m making more concise statements in the music versus playing out for 10 or 11 minutes. Some of the tunes are in the four-minute range.” Award-winning producer Michael Cuscuna
shepherded this project, noting that “It struck me that many of his [previous] albums are ingenious concepts. As successful as each was, none of them captured the breadth of James’s mastery of this music.”

In keeping with his previous projects, Carter shows great respect for tradition in nodding at diverse heroes like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Harry Carney, Billie Holiday and Django Reinhardt, while presenting his influences in modern vernacular. Carter’s versatility is such that it is futile to isolate one horn as the star of this set. His reputation seems to soar highest on baritone, and the big sax glorifies several tracks on Present Tense, starting with the opener, “Rapid Shave.” Dwight Adams puts things in motion while pianist D.D. Jackson spins boogie-woogie post bop chord sequences that cascade into Carter’s solo of trademark growls, slips and slides that take no prisoners. Carter gets off to a furious start on Gigi Gryce’s “Hymn of the Orient,” duking it out with Adams before turning to his signature swirls and twists, which Adams answers in kind. With his most luscious baritone on the standard “Tenderly,” Carter weaves counterintelligence beneath Adams’ melody, the two creating a Miles Meets Mulligan mood.

In an arsenal as broad as Carter’s, the tenor sax might seem a bit mundane, but he never coasts. Carter says that the music of “Sussa Nita” was given to him by Billie Holiday in a dream. With Rodney Jones on guitar and Eli Fountain on percussion, there’s an
added layer giving the track a taste of tango. Jones in particular is an underappreciated titan whose phrasing and articulation play off perfectly against the always dexterous Carter. Victor Young’s “Song of Delilah” finds Carter skillfully weaving together two tracks of tenor for a self-propelled, hip-hoppish duet. (One James Carter is scary enough, thank you.) The original “Bossa JC” again finds the additional guitar and percussion washing the track in sunshine and swing.

It might seem odd that the Django Reinhardt composition, “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure,” does not feature guitar, but Carter’s soprano creates an elastic voice with all the passion and sweetness associated with Django. Carter’s legato phrases are slippery even when he is adding squeal and sneer, as if his octaves are greased. Jackson is simply exquisite in support, while Genus’s hollow-toned solo here tugs the heart as much as the leader’s horn. “Dodo’s Bounce” (by Dodo Marmarosa) literally bounces with Carter’s
acrobatic flute. Jones is again featured on guitar, and hops and skips well under Adams’ muted trumpet accents. Adams (with Genus) and Carter alternate trades with a subtle Victor Lewis in one of the album’s most effective multipart exchanges.

The two bass clarinet tracks standout in part because so few musicians seem to have mastered this deeply resonating reed. On “Bro Dolphy,” Carter somersaults through the theme that pays homage to Dolphy while showing off the virtuosic best of James, his gnarly tone supported by well-spaced trumpet chords and a sympathetic rhythm section. Jackson shows off his melodic chops as well, barely keeping it inside but nevertheless with a mellow, bell-like delicacy in his runs which hang together in a thick braid of sound. Following artful demonstrations from Genus and Lewis, the ensemble cooks up a very Dolphyish attack on tonality that ends abruptly in a high squeal. Although Jimmy Jones’ “Shadowy Sands” was a bari sax vehicle for Harry Carney, Carter here
chooses the more haunting bass clarinet and a brisk tango featuring Fountain on congas, closing with some tropical harmonizing with Adams on flugelhorn.

Present Tense is all about connections between past and future, horn and horn, James Carter and his current team of collaborators. In some respects it reflects Carter as less the flamboyant virtuoso and more the thoughtful master of music’s fate, letting each tune evolve fully but refraining from self indulgence. As such, it may be his most successful outing yet.


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.