Atlantic Records



I remember being in the audience one night when a obnoxious patron, whom had one drink too many, was disturbing James Carter's performance. Not missing a beat and without breaking a sweat, Carter said a few choice and necessary four letter words to the man and ending the uncomfortable situation that had developed. The reedman, no doubt, has balls. He puts it out there in the wind and has earned my respect. That is what separates him from the rest of the "boys" that the majors seem to be churning out with reckless abandon. It is a candid one on one with one of the most promising players in his generation and you get it word for word, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

JAMES CARTER: I was born back in '69. I'm the youngest of five, all of which are musically inclined, my brothers and sisters. I grew up in a very musically diverse household. After various trials and infatuations, I decided to settle on the saxophone. I studied under the tutelage of Donald Washington. I started playing around here in the Detroit area and went on my first tour of Europe in 1985 at the age of sixteen. A couple of years later, I made my foray into New York society as a musician with Lester Bowie in '88 and through that meeting, I actually kind of met the cornerstone of my employers through this one meeting because through him I met Frank Lowe and Phillip Wilson was also playing with us, who I did a separate gig with and met Julius Hemphill, and wound up doing the saxophone sextet with him. The Lincoln Center and the Mingus Big Band also came back into the fold as a result of me being up in New York for a longer stretch of time.

FJ: Let's touch on your time with Lester Bowie.

JAMES CARTER: Well, once again, it was instilled in me that music and life don't separate and just have serious fun, which means to always keep a sense of humor about this music, but at the same time, know that there is some serious tradition that's going on here that needs to be upheld. If it is something that you are hearing, then it's not really unorthodox.

FJ: His passing must have been difficult for you.

JAMES CARTER: Yeah, on a whole lot of levels. When Julius passed away in '95, I was on tour with Lester. We were in Europe. My solo thing was actually taking off at that time as well because that stretch of time actually started out as a tour with Lester which turned into one particular date in Holland, where my group opened up for the New York Organ ensemble that I was playing with at the time and from there, it was my quartet that was on tour. And conversely, I was also on tour with John Hicks and Richard Davis in Japan at the time that Lester passed. But there was always a sense of closure with our last meetings and stuff like that because before this tour actually happened, actually before Lester's tour, his last tour with the Brass Fantasy, I went over to his house in Brooklyn because he was there cooling out and we spent like four hours pretty much just talking about things to come, various business things, and just life in general. The last thing we talked about was him painting the porch at his residence. I was like, "If you need an extra hand, give a holler." We pretty much left it at that.

FJ: And your work with the late Julius Hemphill?

JAMES CARTER: That was really hip too because coming from the standpoint of choosing the saxophone and my teacher had found out that World Saxophone Quartet was coming to our town. This was like in November of '82. We were going to see this and he got tickets and all that. I, for the first time, got to see live in living color how a saxophone can pretty much sustain itself in a musical context and the various roles and also abandoning them as well. That particular night for me was a musical revelation of sorts on what could be possible with the saxophone and what's possible in music as a whole, individually as well as collectively on these instruments. The camaraderie that was going on, even when they weren't playing and it was also funny how they kind of looked like each other in a sense, I guess because of the longevity with the group and being around each other and stuff. It was like I could see a certain look in their eyes that made them one in a sense. It was kind of in the mold of what my teacher was talking about, who also, at this time, had a group of young musicians such as myself, ages seven to seventeen. This group was called Bird-Trane-Scoe-Now and it gave birth to a lot of talent, such as the alto saxophonist and flute and composer that I was using on my last album, Cassius Richmond and a bass player you probably know named Rodney Whitaker. We grew up in this ensemble. We got our first taste of professional music through this particular ensemble. He always mentioned workshops by individuals in the AACM. He covered everything. The name itself, Bird-Trane-Scoe-Now pretty much covers, Bird, Charlie Parker, Trane, John Coltrane, Scoe, meaning Roscoe Mitchell, and now meaning today's vibrations, which means we were also covering a vast amount of music and even going back further than that by doing Duke Ellington stuff, Jelly Roll, Fletcher Henderson. We listened to it all. We absorbed it all. It just made us well versed that way, not only in playing history, but also being able to expound upon it verbally.

FJ: Have you reached that plateau of having an individual voice of your own on your instruments?

JAMES CARTER: I have different personalities that continue to develop. I'll put it like that. It's always going to be a work in progress. I have certain things that I still have got to kind of establish with me and also have ideas that I have yet to really deal with as far as a different dialect on different instruments and voices, if you will. Going through sorting those things out and see what floats to the top and all of that.

FJ: How many different reed instruments do you have in your arsenal?

JAMES CARTER: I play the whole woodwind family actually, mostly centering on saxophones, flutes, and clarinets. I am kind of in the background with my double reeds as of right now, getting them situated.

FJ: Logistically, it must be a pain in the ass carrying all those horns around?

JAMES CARTER: As of recently, I have had cases that were made for multiple horns, so it is not like I'm carrying three cases and then a suitcase and personal effects and all that stuff. It has been really condensed.

FJ: Is James Carter a traditionalist?

JAMES CARTER: What really defines a traditionalist? For me, it is somebody that is being true to what he hears and going at it. If the parameters for a traditionalist are people that play in the idiom of Duke Ellington, there is a certain sense of traditionalism in that. But these people also moved in different arenas and just kept their ears open for whatever hit them and interpreted them as well. That is also the law of nature anyway. You have to continue to evolve. Otherwise, we wouldn't even be talking about various facets of music. It would have just stopped at ragtime and Dixieland back in the Twenties. There wouldn't be no musical breakthroughs or things like that.

FJ: Your take on the debate surrounding Wynton.

JAMES CARTER: I think that on a whole lot of levels, the debates that were going on between him and Lester of what constitutes music, in particular, what constitutes "jazz." I think it was part of just a media blitz to say this that and other to circulate sales or just to get a fire brewing. It kind of tripped me out in one instance where Lester had hired Wynton to play in one of his groups and to find this so called treason of sorts. I guess it's kind of old. I think the tone of urgency calls on as many exponents as possible to deal with the music, as opposed to the politics of it, just to have the music put out there and to celebrate it for what it is, which is something that is heard, as opposed to something that is suppressed. That should be the real celebration, regardless of who it is and how it came about.

FJ: That celebration should extend to you because you get all the grandstanding and gimmick pans as Rahsaan did in his day.

JAMES CARTER: If they were on the same arena and it was honest and true to them, what they were putting out there, I don't think they would stand for it, to be called a gimmick, but at the same time, it is being true to one's self and having the conviction of not letting it defer you from what you are actually supposed to be doing, which is being true and honest to yourself and the music. You truly feel that this is how you want to present it. Of course, I feel it and it has been shown that I can play in the upper registers of the saxophone like a trumpet player would by listening to various individuals, Charlie Shavers, Roy Eldridge. If that feels as natural to me as playing middle C on a saxophone, then it should be celebrated as such, not as a freak, just because it happened that way. That is where the other people get tripped up at, feeling that it is otherworldly. But once it becomes gimmickry, it has a tendency to downplay it and it just misses the point. If someone dropped some words like that or something else derogatory every day, we'd still be beating on skins or something like that. Let's just say that we'd be a square one.

FJ: Do you find yourself on occasion pinching yourself at how quickly you have been able to achieve success?

JAMES CARTER: As of this year, it makes twenty years of being involved with music actively. Like I said, I got my first horn on May 8, '80, so it's like twenty years to the day. So in essence, when I start to look back at how much time has passed, from 1980 to let's say '85, there was a significant amount of time that happened in the first five years, going on the first European tour of over a month, in that short amount of time. I met Wynton right before that actually. I didn't perform with him until later on that particular year. There is a whole lot that went on in those five years that average people would be like instant careers. Just add water. I guess I just knew from the beginning, especially being in a household of musicians and devotees and stuff that it was just a matter of time when music was just going to come in and bite the mess out of me, in the form of I settled on this particular instrument and the craft gets honed as opposed to flirting with one instrument and say, "Yeah, OK, that was nice," and going onto something else and not really being centered. So once everything got rolling, the Creator says that you are going to play the saxophone and everything is going to happen from there. It is kind of miraculous when you think about it. It also let's you know that there is a higher power that is guiding everything as well.

FJ: Let's touch on the In Carterian Fashion record and what makes a record in Carterian fashion?

JAMES CARTER: (Laughing) Yeah, I feel it was, as far as the inclusive aspect of what we were trying to portray. I would have cut some things down a bit and added some others. If the CD format could have a hundred minutes on it, I probably would have been a lot more satisfied. Then I would have been able to put out a whole lot more music that I felt would have represented that. I always continue to dig the idea of that album and if possible, I would like to be able to have a situation in which I could get back into the repertoire of that album again, particularly with the organ because we are using the organ as the centerpiece of this particular CD because of the broad influence that the organ has had on black music in general, having gone from gospel through Seventies funk and into the present and everything in between. The music that was on that album represented those things and what could be possibly done with the organ today as well, which still makes it relevant and still has that soulful core. That was the main thing about the organ, that soulful core and resonance that it has that can't be equaled on any other instrument. I think I would have changed a couple of the things. I would have liked for my brother to have played a lot more than what he was doing on there, almost to the point where I would have liked him as a secondary horn guitar-wise. My brother is at a different space in this life, as far as what his music calls for here, as far as playing cover tunes with various groups out of here in the Detroit area. He's playing the casinos here and doing the society things. I'm always going to keep the organ in the background. Getting into the two new albums, the electric project (Layin' in the Cut) that we just did, I think that is going to be my next foray as far as using the MIDI keyboards in place of one of the guitarists that is on the actual album. In fact, when they are released, I will be at the Blue Note in New York and instead of using two guitars, I am using one guitar and one MIDI keyboard that Craig Taborn is going to be playing. The rest of the personnel consists of Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston and myself.

FJ: On June 6, you will be releasing two albums, the before mentioned Layin' in the Cut, as well as the Django Reinhardt inspired Chasin' the Gyspy. Why do an electric album at this point in your career?

JAMES CARTER: I think that the idea actually started out when I first got signed to Atlantic. We were just bouncing around some ideas that I had on the table as far as what our first option would be and maybe a second one afterwards. I was real insistent on The Real Quietstorm thing, but I also mentioned that I was also a fan of Jimi Hendrix because I grew up in a household with brothers and sisters that were playing it. The Layin' in the Cut album was a result of just calling up certain individuals and got together and went to a rehearsal studio and we just decided to see what was going to come of this particular encounter. In listening to rehearsal, we got into a few things and decided to expound up those and that actually became the core of the album. There is one original from myself and another original from a Detroit poet. That is the tune on there called "There is a Paddle," which has a more elongated title which was obviously omitted.

FJ: Let's not start censoring the material.

JAMES CARTER: The long title is "There is a Paddle for Every Ass in the Universe." That is the full title.

FJ: What does G. P. stand for?

JAMES CARTER: Good people. The idea actually came about upon getting back with an old acquaintance of mine from elementary school. We hadn't seen each other in decades. We happened to run into each other at the mall and just had a nice vibe getting back together and catching up on various things and it was like, "Yeah, good people." He just coined the term G. P. and I said that I was going to do something with that and surprise you. That is how that came about.

FJ: What reeds are you playing on the album?

JAMES CARTER: That one is just soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.

FJ: And the Chasin' the Gypsy recording?

JAMES CARTER: This album actually came about as a result of playing with Kathleen Battle. In the core group of Kathleen Battle, there was Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride, Cyro Baptista, Romero Lubambo, and myself make up the group. The last two people that were mentioned, we'd wind up really sitting close to each other in the formation on stage and during a Florida tour that we had last year, we sat down and got into a sound check and we found ourselves in between tunes during this sound check and rehearsal and I would wind up playing certain tunes that I got off a Django compilation that I was listening to at that particular time. It just so happens, this one particular time I was playing "Nuages" on either tenor or bass clarinet, that particular day, and Romero got wind of it and joined in and Cyro got wind of what we were doing and also joined in and added his two cents as well and between the three of us, we started dealing right then and there. We had a couple of days off after this particular performance in Tampa and Cyro and Romero came up to my room that following morning and said, "We got to do something with this." That is how the wheels got up in motion. The nucleus of the band is pretty much Romero, Cyro Baptista, and myself, as well as my cousin Regina on violin and Joey Baron on drums.

FJ: Was it some clever A&R guy's idea to release both albums simultaneously?

JAMES CARTER: Yeah. Another thing about this album is I am bringing up two freaks of the saxophone family that are kind of forgotten. The F mezzo soprano and the bass saxophone. In particular with the bass, the bass saxophone is the first saxophone period, regardless of everybody being so accustomed to alto, tenor, and soprano. The bass is the very first saxophone that was made and then the other twelve sizes were made after that. They make up the thirteen saxophones that we know of that are in the family.

FJ: I bet you own all thirteen.

JAMES CARTER: No, I'm missing a couple actually (laughing).

FJ: I know you have a love for the saxophone, how many do you have in your collection now?

JAMES CARTER: (Laughing) I own a little. I can't put a number on it. I just haven't bothered to put a number on it. An acquisition comes up and I just go at it from there.

FJ: You have a favorite?

JAMES CARTER: Yeah, I have a couple, quite a few favorites. One I used on the Kansas City Soundtrack and on the movie. That is one favorite of mine. It is a 1926 Conn that has modern Selmer mechanisms on it and so it is like the best of both worlds. You've got modern key work with old metal. It is not like this alloy stuff that is out here now. It is a very special axe. There was only five made in the world. This was the second one out of five. Actually, David Murray used to own this horn for a hot second. He used it in between the time that his horn was stolen, the Selmer he was using at the time. He didn't have a horn and these particular people out of Switzerland were looking for somebody to endorse their instrument that they wanted to go into mass production, finding all these old Conns and doing a job on them. So David was a prime candidate, convenient on all levels. He needed a horn. Later on that particular year, he went from having no horns to having two actually including this one because they found his old horn and I think Charles Tyler had passed away and willed him a Mark VI as well. That is how that went down. Of course, he being a Selmer man, went right back into his Selmers and this horn stayed and word got around to the people in Switzerland that he wasn't using this horn. This is why this horn acts as a favorite of mine because there is this story that I always tell about this. I went to David's place when he was in New Jersey and he had this horn over there in the closet and I played it over his house for like two and a half hours. The first time I had seen this horn, I was out on tour with Julius in '92 and it was at an exhibition under glass, the first one, the prototype was under glass. I couldn't play it at that time because it was under glass. The two manufacturers weren't there at this desk at that time and so I just took their brochure. Anyway, bring up back to home on this, I kept the horn for a month. David let me take the horn back home and check it out. I did a gospel gig on it and this horn just shined all over the place. So word got back to the Swiss people that he wasn't using this horn. He went out on gigs with the Selmer again and so they wanted their horn back. They were asking like eight thousand dollars for this horn because they seriously did some work on this instrument. There were a couple of people that did similar work but it wasn't as extensive, where they took a whole saxophone and put modern keys on it. So David called me up and arranged for me to bring the horn back. I copied down the serial numbers and stuff like that and he shipped it back to Switzerland. A funny thing happened actually, afterwards that was kind of devastating. I didn't have eight grand at the time because this was before even J. C. on the Set came out with me. The two guys that were working on these horns ended up parting ways in their thinking. One wanted to continue because he had a passion for making these horns and the other one wanted to concentrate on what was really bringing in the money, which was repairs on professional horns and school instruments. They had a serious parting of the ways and so the partnership dissolved with only these five horns that they actually made representing the full line. It was the last will and testament to that particular project that they were doing. All the horns except for the prototype were sold off, including the horn that David and I had. I was like, "Oh, man," because I was going to give up a horn to have this whole process done to, but even I couldn't do that. What happened was, I said if anybody calls back and say that they don't like the horn or whatever, please let me know. A few months had passed and a guy speaking in broken English called me up and said that he had a black pearl Conn that I may be interested in possibly buying. He called twice and I finally got the second call and talked to the guy. I came to find out that the horn that he had was in an accident with him, a very bad car accident. His car was totaled. The horn was in there and the horn wasn't scratched at all. He had to go to the hospital and the car was totaled, but the horn was cool. I come to find out that it was my horn.

FJ: It was destiny.

JAMES CARTER: Yeah, I had to read serial numbers off over the phone. That's what confirmed it. It was like hearing your lottery ticket come in. By this time, we are looking at April of '95 and I was on tour and I said that I would meet up with him and get the horn. I wound up getting it at a slightly reduced price. I wound up paying a little over six for it. That is how it went down. I did it right in time for the Kansas City movie, which we shot the next month.

FJ: And the future?

JAMES CARTER: I still have got a couple of logs in the fire, a string album, a live one, which we still haven't tackled yet. I am still looking at doing further expounding on bass saxophone and all these other unusual instruments. Just keeping the ears open and see what floats.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and prefers the old Charlie Sheen. Comments?  Email Fred.