Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary on jazz spent nearly all its time on the history up to 1960 and little afterwards. The implication was that jazz stopped becoming revolutionary and more evolutionary after Ornette Coleman ushered in the “new thing” at the beginning of the sixties. Thus, there was little time spent on the notable jazz musicians of today. One of the few who got the spotlight, however, was James Carter.
As someone who is proficient in a wide variety of saxophones and other wind instruments while possessing a tone that is distinctive but derivative of the past, Carter earned all those accolades heaped on him. There are few artists out there who can expertly bring a fresh take on trad jazz, and the vocabulary he brings to nearly every song he plays is wider than the wingspan of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. It’s the product of his voracious appetite for soaking in vintage jazz records during his childhood.
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. He sounds like someone from a couple of generations earlier than his time, yet he would have been considered a revolutionary had he existed and played like that back then. That’s because musically, he exists in no particular era; he pushes ahead to avant garde while glancing back at the old masters for driving directions.
Throughout Carter’s recording career, many facets of his influences and styles have been revealed, tackling classic tunes on Jurassic Classics, organ jazz on In Carterian Fashion to free funk in Layin’ In The Cut. Since most of his records center on a theme of some sort, one had to listen to much of his discography to get a good grasp of what he’s capable of. While Carter’s first record as a leader came out way back in 1993 (JC on the Set), the release of Present Tense this past Tuesday finally provides the proper introduction to his music.
Encouraged by the well-regarded producer Michael Cuscuna, Carter used the occasion of his inaugural Verve release to place a heaping cross-section of his many facets within a small combo format on one disc. While it might lack in the coherency of a typical Carter album, it more than makes up by the breathtaking mastery of styles on display in a single collection.
The wide array of styles shown here is helped along by also playing a wide array of instruments. On Present Tense, Carter at various times hauls out a soprano, tenor and bartione sax. He also throws in flute and bass clarinet. Think of a Rahsaan Roland Kirk record being played one instrument at a time.
For the first track “Rapid Shave,” Carter chose a lightly covered hot bop tune Stanley Turrentine did with his wife, organist Shirley Scott. D.D. Jackson is trouncing on his piano like as if he’s inhibited by the ghost of Don Pullen. Carter himself replaces Turrentine’s tenor with a righteous baritone.
It’s only fitting that Carter employs a bass clarinet to salute Eric Dolphy, as he does on his own “Bro. Dolphy,” which straddles the thin line between atonal and harmonious just the way the late legend would have done it.
“Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” is another lesser-known tune from a better known name; this time, from French guitar giant Django Reinhardt (who never recorded it himself). For this sweetly romantic tune, Carter plays an equally romantic but sassy soprano sax. Carter switches back to tenor for his original gentle Cuban-flavored bossa nova “Sussa Nita”, sounding as emphatic as mid-period Gato Barbieri and getting some good support from guitarist Rodney Jones.
Carter undertakes an unusual treatment for “Song Of Delilah,” setting it to a hip-hop groove and dubbing over his sax in spots. Dwight Adams is still given ample room to shine on his trumpet.
James picks up the flute for Dodo Marmarosa’s “Dodo’s Bounce” and coupled with Adams’ muted horn, makes for a lightly nimble rendition. “Shadowy Sands,” written by Jimmy Jones, is inspired by Duke Ellington’s use of it to highlight Harry Carney’s bass clarinet skills. Carter borrowed that idea to highlight his own graceful bass clarinet playing.
Gigi Gryce’s classic “Hymn Of The Orient” is played kinetically at double time with Carter’s baritone leading the charge. Carter turns to another bossa, his own “JC Bossa,” before wrapping it up with an elegant depiction of “Tenderly.”
When another documentary on the history of jazz is done fifty years from now, a few of the names Ken Burns glossed over toward the end might get more prominent coverage then. I’d bet that James Carter will be one of those guys. With Present Tense, his legacy continues to grow.