Sweet and Lowdown

In two new albums, sax giant James Carter takes on an opponent his own size: The electric guitar

Jazz cats are so cute. While the music world commits all manner of wondrously esoteric foolishness on its collective iMac, much of the jazzocracy still can't decide what to make of that most primitive emitter of electronic signals, the electric guitar. You may have heard of this contraption, and its death, from tireless techno propagandists, who deem the device as tinny a relic of the industrial age as the AFL-CIO. Yet for Lincoln Centrists, said instrument remains the bane of all that is holy, their plaints ringing with the hollow naiveté of a retired Cold Warrior grousing in his cups over Castro's baffling longevity.

Unfortunately, just as such generals (and public-opinion polls) still dictate foreign policy, so do moldy figs (and public-opinion polls) dictate jazz canonization, dangling the word fusion like a scarlet letter. Not that there aren't amplified ax men who file their skronkdillyicious innovations under jazz. But round the Knitting Factory showmen out of the commercial equation, and you're basically left with honorably tedious journeyfolk like John Scofield and vacuous noodlers like George Benson. Even back when a pioneer like Charlie Christian went electric, he was primarily interested in maintaining the purity of his guitar sound, the better to make his instrument ring out like a horn, nimble-fingered runs and all. Such a commitment to a limited tonal guitar palette was rooted in a history of inadequacy: In swing times, no one could hear the damn thing, the rhythmic strumming barely proving audible behind Mighty Horn Men of yore.

More soul than George Benson, more fingers than Django: James Carter
More soul than George Benson, more fingers than Django: James Carter

Oddly fitting, then, that the official jazz ranks have shrugged the Guitar Problem off to the last of the Mighty Horn Men. Like Hercules in the crib, James Carter accepted his muscular sax virtuosity as a given early on, offering up an unreproachable feat of chopsmanship, 1994's Jurassic Classics, to the Olympian judges and thereby earning the right to sell his labors to Atlantic Jazz in perpetuity. The arrangement has left him free to explore the tonal range of his instrument like no one since Sonny Rollins (as the standard comparison goes). But Carter is more conceptually audacious than Rollins, as two new Atlantic discs reveal. He can disguise an acrobatic act of egotism as a tribute to guitarist Django Reinhardt, as he does on Chasin' the Gypsy, or chafe his licks against the guitar strings of an electric funk band, as on Layin' in the Cut. And all the establishment can do is hope for many happy returns on its investment.

Lest your lips be wetted by the flavor of sacrilege, note that Carter's electric foray is, at its core, straight blues-based improv, no chaser--i.e., no keyboards, obvious overdubs, or synthesized drums. At first, Layin' in the Cut merely lets its Ornette-certified rhythm section (bassist Jamalaadeen Tacuma, drummer G. Calvin Weston) ply solid-state funk that doesn't just dance in its head. The guitars mostly color within the lines as well, with Jef Lee Johnson squeezing out liquid leads while Marc Ribot adds rhythmic sound effects.

But Carter won't settle for mere technical brilliance from his sidemen. Darting around the guitars, he becomes indistinguishable from them, unleashing a lead on "Terminal B" that sounds as much like a braking IRT as anything Johnny Thunders ever squealed. At the close of the title track, Carter's popping keys sound uncannily like a slap bass. He even mimics distortion, though it would be misleading to say he treats his saxophones as if they were guitars. Instead Carter is dedicated to what some beatnik might have called the saxophoneness of the saxophone, pushing the instrument to its full sonic potential. He treats reeds like Sonic Youth treat strings, without any preconceptions about how his instrument is "supposed" to sound.

Then, as a reminder that the sax is made of far sturdier (and far more) metal than guitars, Carter proceeds to outshred, outshriek, and outmaneuver his allies. This is Carter's m.o.: Invite some honored guests, give them room to dawdle, and then unceremoniously cut them. On 1996's Conversin' With the Elders, Carter invited idols ranging from Lester Bowie to Hamiet Bluiett and proceeded to graciously show them up. But Ribot and Johnson are not so easily bested; they rise to the challenge as the disc progresses, the rhythm section braying mightily to keep up. It all seethes fiercely enough to put the harm back in harmolodics, but the melody always tracks.

 

Chasin' the Gypsy leads off with what might be a jazz answer to heavy metal, that resentful European plot against the wit and grace of African-American blues culture, that Sturm und Wang Dang Doodle scored by the Freikorps marching band for cannon, Valkyrie choir, and crash symbol. With ironic brio, Carter's tribute to French-Hungarian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt lands on a Normandy beachhead with the defiant thud of a single snare shot, swiftly appropriating the melody of Reinhardt's trademark "Nuages" for a monstrously booming bass-sax line that all but cackles, "Lafayette, we have returned for your ass, muhfuh!"

Slogging onward, "Artillerie Lourde" allows Carter's martial key-tapping to march blithely across a tonal minefield as the rhythm section swings with a message for the continent: You can play it heavy but still keep light on your feet. Écoutez et répétez, brothers and sisters. In all, there are Reinhardt tunes, two Reinhardt-identified standards, and a couple of original tributes, but Chasin' the Gypsy is more chattily playful than reverent--and more varied than Reinhardt's own oeuvre. The saxophonist's wisest innovations here are rhythmic (Django's briskly swinging shuffle can become as repetitive as two-step garage), and the closest he comes to straight reinterpretation is on the title track, which he wrote himself and tagged with a baroquely boppish intro. Elsewhere Carter keeps quiet enough to let you hear Jay Berliner and Romeo Lubambo do their respectful Django impressions--though even here the bandleader calls the shots, spouting a series of trills that are echoed by Lubambo on "Manoir De Mes Rêves."

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