Monday, February 2, 2009

Trying to Get into the Present Tense with James Carter

I remember the first time College Roomy had me sitting in his back room (post college) and put on James Carter's 1995 release, The Real Quietstorm which opens with the phatest baritone sax openings of "Round Midnight" one could ever imagine. It was a sound that made you melt the minute you heard it. That whole album, which I picked up the first chance I could after I heard it, was simply wonderful all the way through with that totally sexy late night jazz feel to it. I thought, this is a player I am going to be listening to for a very long time. Carter's contrbutions on Robert Altman's 1996 Kansas City soundtrack did nothing but confirm that sense as Carter's distinctive growl on any saxophone he touched--whether bari, alto or soprano--and on any style of song he played, was both distinctive and a pleasure to listen to. As Pico puts it:

When you hear Carter play the saxophone, it's pretty unmistakable that it's him: he's got the soul of Lester Young, the grit of Eddie Harris and the technical proficiency of John Coltrane.
But alas, I didn't keep up (at all) and it was only recently that I picked up my second James Carter album--his 2008 release Present Tense. Now you have to be a real curmudgeon to not enjoy Carter's playing, but I can also understand some of the slightly, er, nuanced reactions to this album. It has exquisite playing throughout and great mixes and each song is worthy of comment, but it doesn't quite hold together as a whole.

Carter plays just about anything that has a reed and requires wind and then throws in a little flute for good measure--so talent is not an issue. And the album contains a variety of influences from standard swing, to Latin, to alternative jazz, so you have to respect the variety. And all of it does have a certain Carter touch--this isn't just a cat with a sax showing off his skills . . . but it still doesn't move me as a great disc (although it has, for the most part received some very solid reviews).

The disc opens with "Rapid Shave"--a swinging Blue Note era sounding bop tune by Dave Burns that sets the tone. That is followed by "Bro. Dolphy"--a Carter original that leans toward the atonal, alternative jazz Dolphy played and Carter, on the bass clarinet of course, does Dolphy justice. That said, the tune throws off the album for me as it is as if I just hit the shuffle button on the iPod and jumped from one era to the next. Eclectic and wide-ranging yes, but not really how I like my discs to flow.

In fact, I think it is this moment in the disc which is the real hitch for me as after that we settle in with a Django ballad (never can you go wrong there) and a slow cha-cha piece where Carter's growling sax is at its best--slow and menacing. We then move into a pretty nice mix of pieces although I have to say I am not real keen on jazz albums where the artist is dueling himself on a multi-track mix of, well, himself, which we get on "Song of Delilah." The disc has some nice pieces in the later half with a great swinging version of Gigi Gryce's "Hymn of the Orient" and some nice Latin-flavored pieces.

Ultimately though the breadth of styles becomes a bit too much of a mish-mash for me. I don't want it all to be the same, but I would really have liked a bit more sense of how it all fits together. Perhaps I am a bit too wed to a certain type of jazz album and am just still trying to figure out how to move forward with jazz rather than being hung up in the classics of the past. There are many wonderful moments here (with Dwight Adams' trumpet work and D.D. Jackson's piano providing great complements to Carter's sensibilities) and it is definitely worth a listen. It just doesn't reach the level of classic to me--a high bar I suppose, but one that this guy has the talent to reach. Of course to be fair, I should listen to something from the previous 15 years (and if you have a sense of offerings between Quietstorm and Present Tense that should be looked into, please advise).

Check these out, which I think are a few highlights of the album (which you can buy here).

Rapid Shave
Sussa Nita
Hymn of the Orient

And if you haven't heard this from Real Quietstorm which you can also buy here, well then let me share!

Round Midnight

And lastly, check out this swinging tune from Kansas City, on which JC takes a rippin solo (oh and you can buy that there too).

Moten Swing

1 comment:

Steven said...

I also really enjoyed his contributions to the Kansas City soundtrack.

I am holding a mix tape challenge of your favorite instrumentals, can't find my Kansas City soundtrack, dagnabbit.

Check my blog if you want to participate.