ALBUMS: The Return Of James Carter

The sax great makes his first album in eight years his Blue Note debut, pays homage to Django Reinhardt

James Carter Live From Newport Jazz, Blue Note 2019

Artist: James Carter Organ Trio

Album: Live From Newport Jazz

Label: Blue Note

★★★★ (4/5 stars)


Known for the controlled explosiveness of his playing and his wide range of musical interests, saxophonist James Carter has been one of the most impressive and acclaimed musicians in jazz for the last quarter of a century.

Oddly, the Detroit native has been strangely silent, on record at least, for eight years. So it’s no surprise that Carter makes a big entrance back into the record racks with his Blue Note debut Live From Newport Jazz

Recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival, obviously, the record has a concept: every song comes from the repertoire of famed early twentieth-century jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Carter has visited this realm before on 2000’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, though not with this kind of live energy. Joined by his Motor City-rooted organ trio, including Hammond B-3 master Gerard Gibbs and drummer Alexander White, Carter brings R&B-infused Detroit grit to Reinhardt’s elegant compositions, finding the common ground between urban Americana and the French interpretation of jazz improvisation. 

James Carter impression / art by Ron Hart

Opening cut “Les Manoir De Mes Reves” serves as the set’s statement of purpose: deep organ grooves, swinging drums and burly sax – a powerhouse performance that both reinforces the legacy of great Blue Note soul jazz recordings and lays out what each player brings to the table. Even better, however, is immediate follower “Melodie au Crespuscule.”

 

Gibbs drives the song with a funky bassline adapted from Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” setting up his own rippling solo. The tune at first seems to serve purely as a showcase for the organist, but then Carter lets loose on his soprano sax, soothing and squealing, waxing lyrical and rambunctious – even using a wah-wah-like filter at one point. White simply lays back, keeping the chaos reigned in. It’s a tour de force that reveals the trio’s thick chemistry and telepathic approach to interplay. 

Nothing else on the record quite reaches that height, but the songs still hit hard. Coming across as a ballad of sorts, “Anouman” relaxes the tempo with plush keys and a swinging shuffle. The tune serves as a breathcatcher – at least until Carter starts his solo two-thirds of the way through, building to an unaccompanied stream of free skronk. Putting his virtuoso technique through a noise-abused filter, Cartner also engages in some playful call-and-response with the audience. “La Valse Des Niglos” and “Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure” solidify the band’s hold on the crowd, barrelling straight ahead into its idiom and keeping the momentum going. The trio ends the record on its funkiest note with “Fleche d’Or,” a hardcore groove-fest that not only lets White and Gibbs shine at their brightest, but again lets Carter indulge in some of his most “out” playing. The band subverts expectations at the end, closing the tune not with a typical freeform jam, but by simply coming to a stop.  

Carter’s reputation is such that, even with almost a decade of recorded silence, he doesn’t need any kind of coming out party. Instead, Live From Newport Jazz serves as a loud, greasy reminder that one of the most formidable talents of his generation can still raise the roof. 

 

AUDIO: “Melodie au Crespuscule”

Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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