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In Need of Organ 

Jazzbo James Carter has never worshiped the Tradition, and it shows in his latest trio.

The music of James Carter rules . . . and so do his suits.
  • The music of James Carter rules . . . and so do his suits.
In the past decade or so, organ combos have seen a popular resurgence in jazz. Younger players such as Joey DeFrancesco and Medeski, Martin & Wood gave the sound a booster shot. And back in 2004, saxophone monster James Carter tossed his hat into the ring, concentrating on his Organ Trio, which features ace organist Gerald Gibbs and Leonard King on drums.

Born in 1969 in Detroit, a city historically known for jazz talent, Carter heard the blues/R&B-infused soul-jazz organ of Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Reuben Wilson "on heavy rotation on WJZZ," he recalls via phone from New York. But this earthy approach to jazz never really received its critical due during its heyday in the '60s and '70s. After all, it was music people grooved to, not "serious art." That doesn't bother Carter, though; his massive bear-hug of a sound dovetails perfectly with the organ's rootsy sound. Then again, he's pretty much always blazed his own path.

Carter was something of a child prodigy. The tenor, baritone, soprano, and bass saxophonist began playing at age 11, studying under local legend and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave (who played on many Motown sessions, as well as with Charles Mingus and Tony Bennett). Carter toured with Wynton Marsalis before age 18, then in 1988 jumped to the band of avant-jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. Shortly after joining up with Bowie, he relocated to New York City.

Putting this in historical context, Carter's career trajectory is astounding. The American jazz scene was then in thrall of Wynton and his fellow "young lions," lads in nice suits (such as Wallace Roney and Christopher Hollyday) who remade the Tradition -- actually spelling it with a capital "T" for fealty's sake -- after their own somewhat reactionary image. With these lions (some of whom were openly hostile to funk, fusion, and free jazz), it seemed as if jazz's development stopped around 1963 or so, with the classic, pre-electric Miles Davis Quintet. Maybe it was simply jazz's counterpart to Reagan's creeping conservatism, but alas, it was finally hip to be square.

Carter had no truck with all that hooey. His solos have always found him coaxing bluesy bellows and gritty smears that, in moments, share more affinities with juke-joint R&B and early rock and roll than with uptown bistros serving $10 mixed drinks. His deeply personal style as both saxophonist and composer embraces the whole damn jazz tradition, including the breathy, brawny tone of Coleman Hawkins, who put the tenor sax on the map in the '20s, and the guttural wails, feral shrieks, and feedback-like skronk of Albert Ayler, Cleveland's gift to out-jazz, who hit the scene like a bomb in the early '60s with his ecstatic approach to the tenor. But Carter's sound comes out all him: gutsy, brainy, reverent, sexy, and audacious. That's because Carter isn't constrained by dogmatic notions of Tradition; he understands that music is an ever-developing thing. And for it to remain vital and fun, evolution is essential.

Now, most jazzbos are content to release slight variations on the same album throughout their careers. For the mainstream crowd: a mix of originals and a few standards in the melody/solos/melody format. And for the out-posse: tossing all format out the window and just blowing free -- ad nauseam. Carter, in contrast, builds each disc from a unique concept, highlighting a different aspect of his musical personality every time. Gardenias for Lady Day pays homage to vocal icon Billie Holiday; Chasin' the Gypsy is a tribute to the elegant, Gypsy-rooted small-band swing of French guitarist Django Reinhardt; Layin' in the Cut is sinewy, thorny funk with a twin-electric- guitar lineup (featuring Marc Ribot). One of the more famous -- or infamous, if you ask jazz purists -- is Gold Sounds, a 2005 quartet session featuring pianist Cyrus Chestnut, with source material drawn from the catalog of Stockton, California's favorite avant-rockers, Pavement.

"The guys who run Brown Brothers records wanted us to do this album," explains Carter. "They gave us this material [Pavement's music] for us to absorb. At the time, I was really into Beavis and Butt-head, where I recognized a bit of Pavement's music ["Cut Your Hair"]. From there, we collectively found our way in."

News of this album eventually reached the alt-rock and jam-band communities; the quartet's weeklong engagement at New York's Iridium Jazz Club in September 2005 was not only "a great time for the band," says Carter, "but people were yelling out requests for their favorite Pavement tunes!"

Touring steadily with his Organ Trio, Carter has been in the enviable position of having a consistent group that is honing an authoritative band sound over time. And with that, he can dive deeper into performing the standards. But while most jazz musicians use standards (Gershwin, Ellington, Cole Porter, etc.) merely as springboards for soloing, Carter doesn't. "There is timelessness to standards. There is reality to them," he explains.

It's worth the price of admission to his 2005 opus Out of Nowhere. He embraces the sultry melody of the title song (a classic Green/Heyman composition), caressing it as a lover might, but never condescending to it. And like a caring lover, he does more than right by it. Of course, his band completes the picture: King's drumming swings sharply, but it's never overly busy or bombastic. Gibbs' organ is dense and virtually orchestral, buttressing Carter's horn work with tangy chords, gospel-derived sanctification, and coolly erudite phrasing.

Listening to the Organ Trio, it's easy to grasp the long-standing appeal of this format. To paraphrase rock icon Robert Fripp, it's a small, mobile, intelligent unit; the organ not only has authority but expansive range, going from street-corner funk to classical and modernist flourishes, with the two divergent approaches happily coexisting. That's something Carter has always devoted himself to.

More by Mark Keresman

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