The New Colossus

Multi-reedman James Carter has the talent to back up his swagger

James Carter
In Carterian Fashion
Atlantic Jazz

No matter what instrument multi-reedman James Carter puts between his lips--bass clarinet, tenor, alto, or soprano sax--his fat, puissant tone and swaggering versatility launch a Bronx cheer toward the neoclassical conservatism that has pervaded jazz for more than a decade. Carter's talent is so prodigious (he's 29) that his few critics are left to kvetch that he's been given too much too soon: With maturity, the critical rap goes, Carter will curb his excesses and hone his conception, eventually realizing a greater coherence.

But Carter's referential command of jazz history is already better than that of most horn players twice his age, and muzzling his garrulous muse would merely reduce his capacity to put his supposed excesses into proper context. Within his sonic maelstrom one can hear that Carter has already paid his dues to the neoconservative crowd. He debuted with Wynton Marsalis at the age of 17 and subsequently performed with Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Carter has also resurrected and lionized the reputation of Don Byas--a former tenor player with Count Basie--by frequently performing Byas's compositions.

And while each of Carter's five CDs has been a stylistic tour de force, all but his debut, JC on the Set, were created under the aegis of a distinct concept. 1994's The Real Quietstorm leaned toward powerhouse ballads, while Jurassic Classics (released that same year) featured bold remakes of timeless standards. Carter's 1996 breakthrough, Conversin' With the Elders, saw him play with and pay homage to his formative influences, from the prickly trumpeter Lester Bowie to the venerable former Basie sideman Sweets Edison. His latest, In Carterian Fashion, tries a more specifically stylized take on his revisionist aesthetic by using the groove-oriented organ-jazz craze of the '60s for a launching pad into the avant-garde/funk/swing-bop that is Carter's multifaceted métier.

The best tracks on Fashion are Carter arrangements of traditional tunes. "Down to the River" finds Carter on tenor, enmeshed in a creamy swoon, blowing a blues that is both lewd and wry after organist Henry Butler's dappled notes have established the mood. On his second solo, Carter ups the intensity with one of his patented, quicksilver cadenzas, then leaps into shrieks on the second chorus, walking a tightrope with upper register. It's an inexorably bravura performance.

The other traditional number, "Trouble in the World," takes the opposite tack, opening with swirling sheets of sound that recall late-period Coltrane, as Carter pinches his tenor horn into the facsimile of a soprano. The storm then resolves into a fetid blues, set off by some funky guitar by James's brother and former George Clinton associate Kevin Carter. Before long, Carter seizes the lull and slides into sinuous modal passages with a slightly nasal pitch. The rich tone and ululant sound suggest the soundtrack for a cheesy noir, along the lines of Mickey Spillane Goes to Cairo.

What's tougher to describe is the sheer audacity Carter unveils on these and most every other song he essays: Whether he's clipping off a phrase, modulating to a new tone, or burning through changes in tempo, the effect is deliberately striking. On "Don's Idea," yet another Byas cover, Carter's tenor is both buoyant and cavernous as he tears through a kinetic swing arrangement that makes the quintet sound like a stripped-down Basie band. "Skull Grabbin'" is music experienced as a glorified splatball game, with Carter hurling gobs of notes that recall the playfulness of Lester Bowie one minute and the stentorian virtuosity of Rahsaan Roland Kirk the next. And the closing title track slathers fatback over dissonant screeching in a manner that makes the whole shebang feel like rock 'n' roll.

Even the lesser tracks on Fashion have their neon flourishes of innovation, from the plush unison head arrangement that opens "Lianmo," to the long raspberry notes in the middle of "Lockjaw's Lament," to the haunting vamp that Carter (on bass clarinet here) contents himself with throughout "Odyssey." But the most spectacular failure, and the song that provides Carter's detractors with the most ammunition, is "Frisco Follies." Over a rollicking blues triggered by drummer Alvester Garrett and some prancing organ from Cyrus Chestnut, Carter overdubs a barrage of baritone, tenor, and soprano sax lines in a fulsome fury that sheds far more heat than light. The lesson here is that three James Carters on one song is simply more traffic than his stylistic high road will bear. But the lesson everywhere else on Fashion is that one James Carter is, ultimately, just right.

James Carter plays shows on July 27 and July 28 at the Dakota Bar & Grill (see A List, p. 57); call 642-1442.

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