FIRESIDE CHAT WITH JAMES CARTER
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.
JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
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
Let's touch on your time with Lester Bowie.
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.
His passing must have been difficult for you.
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.
And your work with the late Julius Hemphill?
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.
Have you reached that plateau of having an individual voice of your own
on your instruments?
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.
How many different reed instruments do you have in your arsenal?
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.
Logistically, it must be a pain in the ass carrying all those horns around?
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.
Is James Carter a traditionalist?
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.
Your take on the debate surrounding Wynton.
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
That celebration should extend to you because you get all the grandstanding
and gimmick pans as Rahsaan did in his day.
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.
Do you find yourself on occasion pinching yourself at how quickly you
have been able to achieve success?
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.
Let's touch on the In Carterian Fashion record and what makes a record
in Carterian fashion?
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.
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?
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.
Let's not start censoring the material.
CARTER: The long title is "There is a Paddle for Every Ass in the Universe."
That is the full title.
What does G. P. stand for?
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.
What reeds are you playing on the album?
CARTER: That one is just soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone.
And the Chasin' the Gypsy recording?
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.
Was it some clever A&R guy's idea to release both albums simultaneously?
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.
I bet you own all thirteen.
CARTER: No, I'm missing a couple actually (laughing).
I know you have a love for the saxophone, how many do you have in your
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.
You have a favorite?
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.
It was destiny.
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.
And the future?
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.
Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and prefers the old Charlie Sheen.