Thursday, January 3, 2013

In Celebration Of the Musical Brilliance, Swagger and Joie de Vivre of James Carter on His 44th Birthday!

(b. JANUARY 3, 1969)


Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1969, James Carter began playing saxophone at age 11, first recorded with a Detroit student ensemble in 1986 and, by 1991, had recorded with legendary trumpeter Lester Bowie on The Organizer and contributed to the 1991 collection The Tough Young Tenors. Mastering a family of reed instruments, from sopranino to contrabass saxophones to contrabass and bass clarinets, James Carter mesmerized the jazz world after arriving in New York City in 1988 to play under the auspices of Lester Bowie. His debut recording, JC On The Set, released in Japan when Carter was a mere 23 years old, heralded the arrival of a significant and powerful new musical force in jazz. Recorded at the same session as his debut, Carter's next release, Jurassic Classics (1994), found him entering the Top Jazz Albums chart for the first time. It was a feat to be echoed with four of Carter's subsequent releases: The Real Quiet Storm (1995), Conversin' With The Elders (1996), In Carterian Fashion (1998), and Chasin' The Gypsy (2000). Gardenias For Lady Day is the first James Carter collection since the simultaneous release, in June 2000, of Layin' In The Cut, an electric jazz/funk collective jam session, and Chasin' The Gypsy, an homage to Django Reinhardt. In a review of those two albums, Rolling Stone (August 3, 2000) asserted that "....saxophonist James Carter is as near as jazz gets nowadays to a Young Turk -- not some ironically avant-post-rock experimentalist but a cocky scene stealer with...a knack for coming up with noticeable records." Carter has performed, either live or in the studio, with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the late Julius Hemphill, Ronald Shannon Jackson, the Charles Mingus Big Band, soprano Kathleen Battle, Aretha Franklin, David Murray, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ginger Baker, Sonny Rollins, and many others. He appeared in the 1994 PBS telecast of "Live At Lincoln Center" and portrayed saxophonist Ben Webster in Robert Altman's 1996 film, "Kansas City." James Carter recently topped Downbeat's annual Critics Poll in the Baritone Saxophone category for the third year in a row.

James Carter Organ Trio - "The Hard Blues" (composition by Julius Hemphill) - Jazz.Cologne - WDR:

James Carter Organ Trio, Walk The Dog, Madison Square Park, NYC 8-4-10:

James Carter -- Concerto for Saxophones:

James Carter -w/Orchestra playing "Laura" (composition by David Raksin):

James Carter NY 2011:

James Carter Official Site, Fan Sites, Photos, Pictures:

James Carter clinic in Mariachi Sax Boutique, Moscow, Russia:

Detroit saxophonist James Carter has matured, but his rapturous swagger lives on

The James Carter Organ Trio has been together 10 years. From left: Drummer Leonard King, saxophonist Carter and organist Gerard Gibbs. / Ingrid Hertfelder

By Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press Music Writer
July 8, 2012  

NEW YORK -- The steep prices, cheesy blue lights and gift shop at the Blue Note emit a tourist trap vibe, but occasionally the bookings at this long-standing Greenwich Village jazz spot offer compensation. Certainly a packed house got its money's worth on the last Tuesday in June. Saxophonist James Carter's Organ Trio blew the roof off the club, but, then, what else is new? J.C. was on the set, and the D was in the house.

• Video: The James Carter Organ Trio: "Come Sunday"

• Video: The James Carter Organ Trio. "Going Home"

The Detroit-born Carter, one of the most celebrated jazz prodigies of recent vintage, has matured since his wild-oats days, but at 43 he still plays like a volcano erupting. The second set opened with a cappella tenor: a long trill, loud and resonant enough to hear all the way to Harlem, ending in a violent squawk that Carter choreographed with a whiplash snap of his body. He barked. He brayed. He played the blues. He used circular breathing -- taking air through the nose without stopping the sound.

With tension at a fever pitch, the trio roared into a swinging soul-jazz groove laid down by fellow Detroiters Gerard Gibbs on organ and Leonard King on drums. Carter rode the finger-popping beat, strutting side to side, chest puffed, pinstripes flashing. He built a swaggering, spontaneous solo in his image, pushing the time and referencing a big chunk of jazz history -- from the gruff vibrato and vocalizations of the old school tenors he so worships to frenzied squeals associated with free jazz. If the bar had been closer to the stage, he might have leapt up and walked it like an R&B saxophonist of yore.

Carter's more-is-more aesthetic is not for everyone. He can turn into a circus in the blink of an eye. But if you're willing to surrender to the charisma of his virtuosity, and if his taste antennae are fully engaged as they mostly were that night, the results can be exhilarating. There's nobody else like him.

Versatile prodigy

Carter returns home this week to participate in the 5th Don Was Detroit All-Star Revue on Saturday at the Concert of Colors. Organized by Was, a Grammy Award-winning pop and rock producer with a wide enough musical vision that he's become president of the Blue Note jazz label, the revue features national and local musicians tied to Detroit by birth or residence, including Carter, singer Sheila Jordan, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, violinist Regina Carter and others.

It's been more than 25 years since James Carter began turning heads in Detroit as a precocious 16-year-old man-child. Much was made early on that his initial champions (and employers) represented camps seen by many as philosophical opposites: traditionalist Wynton Marsalis and avant-garde heroes Lester Bowie and Julius Hemphill. The historical sweep of Carter's playing was highly unusual in a musician so young, and the freakish facility he revealed on every size saxophone and clarinet (plus flute) was stunning. If he was prone to showboating and reducing certain jazz idioms into tropes, well, he was frighteningly gifted and young. It wasn't clear where he was going, but you knew it would be fun to watch.

Now that he's grown up, Carter's identity has settled. More than anything, he's a gunslinger, the kind of high-energy virtuoso and benevolent assassin that can mow down friends and foes alike at a jam session. He's not a path-breaking innovator, composer or bandleader but rather a stylist of larger-than-life proportion who thrives on variety. He's the Tough Tenor of his generation, bringing the manly countenance and swing-to-bop rhythm and phrasing of heroes like Don Byas and especially Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis into a contemporary idiom.

His discography is loaded with attractive concept recordings and projects -- an homage to the nicotine-stained music of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, a Billie Holiday tribute, a hybrid classical-jazz concerto written for him by Roberto Sierra and premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Still, Carter sounds most at ease with a frisky, uncluttered rhythm section and a set list of untapped jazz repertoire and standards.

"I think James was probably born too late in that what he would love to be doing is killing other saxophonists in Kansas City in 1939 or on stage with Jazz at the Philharmonic in the '40s and '50s, duking it out with other great saxophonists," said his current producer, Michael Cuscuna. "He is so good at that; it's his essence."

Carter's cross to bear has been the same challenge all former prodigies and virtuosos face: finding ways to focus and edit, to move beyond imitation and the excesses of youth. He's getting there. At the Blue Note, he played shorter solos than in the past, relied less on rote devices and revealed a stronger sense of structure in his solos. Though many multi-instrumentalists pare down their arsenal as they age, Carter divided his time between soprano, alto and tenor.

Critics and others have varying opinions, but to me he's most compelling on tenor and two basement-register horns he left at home that night: baritone sax and bass clarinet. Don't expect Carter to mellow with age; volatility is too much a part of his DNA, and so is the exuberance he takes in his own furioso technique. But he's a wiser and more experienced musician (and man) at 43 than he was at 27.

"I want to say that there's more refinement and space in my playing now," Carter said. "I'm a bit more lyrical in my eccentricities, if you will. I listen to a whole lot more vocalists, and the more I listen, the more I incorporate certain phonetic devices they use in order to make the language of a non-vocal instrument more palatable -- where you can hear the vowels, lyrics or an implied lyric. The stories I'm trying to tell are more informed, as opposed to looking at a song from just a theoretical standpoint."

World-class collector

The afternoon of Carter's gig at the Blue Note, he walked into Sam Ash Music in the theater district with a wide grin and a tenor saxophone case slung over his shoulder. Well over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker, Carter is a handsome man with fleshy cheeks and an imperial presence and manner of speaking. Dressed in a baby blue track suit and a custom straw cap, he was a peacock in the heart of Manhattan. Married with two children, he divides his time between a New York apartment and a home in Detroit.

Sam Ash is a landmark instrument dealer and repair shop, and Carter is a regular. He greeted every staff member by name (and vice versa) before heading up the stairs to the inner sanctum where the repair staffers do their magic. "Sometimes we lock the store and forget he's still here," said a clerk, laughing, as Carter's blue frame vanished up the stairs.

He owns a world-class collection of rare vintage saxophones and other reed instruments. How many? He danced around the question, passively allowing that it was at least 100. He's always buying, selling, repairing. He started taking saxophones apart soon after learning to play them and could make a living as a repairman.

Donald Washington, Carter's saxophone teacher and key mentor when he was growing up in Detroit, is one of the rare people to have seen the collection. "He opened that door, and they were stacked to the ceiling," said Washington. "I didn't think he had that many. You could hardly get in the room."

Carter needed a new cork for the neck of the tenor he had brought with him, a Selmer Super Balanced Action made around 1951 that he paid $4,300 for in 2000. He also wanted to ask the cost of gold-plating the keys of a dinged-up vintage baritone sax and silver-plating the rest of the horn. Behind the counter, Josh made a phone call.

"Their price on the silver with the gold keys is $2,600."

Carter raised his eyebrow: "So, that's just the plating, not even the collision work?" He paused, dubious: "That's one to grow on."

When the neck work was done, he played an impromptu, dazzling cadenza, checking the sound from the notes below street level to those as high as the spire at the top of the Empire State Building. "This horn has over a 50-year head start on it," he said, comparing it to a new instrument.

"It's been used, obviously, but once you feel where the pearls have been worn in, it feels like it was custom-made, even though it was mostly played by someone else. Once you find those idiosyncrasies and live with them, it's like hand in glove."

A mentor's influence
Carter settled onto a stool in a cozy practice room at the back of the store and began to talk about growing up in Detroit. As he spoke, he casually assembled his tenor again, playing it once to illustrate a point but otherwise letting it rest on his knee like an infant. He has always carried the banner for Detroit. He recorded live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, introduced the unsung veteran bebop alto sax wizard Larry Smith to a wider audience with a guest spot on a CD and has kept his bands stocked with Detroiters, even when pressured by record companies and promoters to use "name" sidemen.

Carter came from a musical family. His mother played piano and violin, a brother played guitar with Parliament Funkadelic and another brother sang in a soul band. He took up the saxophone at 11, but the big bang came a year later when he came under the wing of saxophonist Donald Washington, a sage private teacher and school band director. Carter calls him Pops.

"Pops always emphasized sound," Carter said. "That's basically your calling card. That's the first thing that's going to permeate somebody's core. If you don't have a sound, your ideas aren't going to mean anything. If a tree falls in Brooklyn but I'm on Staten Island, how are you going to get to me if you don't have that sound?"

Washington, who moved to Minneapolis in 1987, said that Carter, whom he nicknamed Mash, had the music "in his blood." Every Saturday he'd give him a lesson to learn, and by the next week Mash would have it perfect. Washington introduced him to scales and improvisation immediately. He practiced for hours on end and devoured records the way other kids inhaled burgers. He played along with the Basie, Ellington and Billie Holiday records he discovered at home and borrowed LPs from Washington and drummer Leonard King that covered the modernist waterfront.

Carter quickly became a member of Washington's legendary youth ensemble, Bird-Trane-Sco-Now, a group that nurtured several important musicians, including bassist Rodney Whitaker. The name represented a contraction of saxophonists Charlie (Bird) Parker, John Coltrane and Roscoe Mitchell. It's not unusual for junior high and high school students to play Parker and Coltrane, whose music forms the common-practice mainstream. But it's unheard of for students so young to tackle exploratory group improvisation and strategies associated with Mitchell, a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a seminal avant-garde band.

"I went all the way up to Mitchell and Sun Ra," said Washington. "A lot of teachers don't do that. I didn't tell them that any particular music was better than any other. But they got the whole spectrum. Mash didn't leave anybody out."

Like any great teacher, Washington's lessons transcended music. He taught students to respect their elders and members of the opposite sex, and he made sure the young men understood it would be their responsibility to provide for their families, even if things didn't go their way in a music career. He also taught them that not everybody was going to like what they did but that their responsibility was to be honest and serious with their art and themselves.

"If it wasn't for Pops, I would probably be a beaker-head scientist right now," Carter said.

Everything about his musical education was accelerated. He started attending the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp at 14 and two summers later in 1985 toured Europe as a member of the camp's faculty band. Wynton Marsalis met him on a school visit and invited him to play a handful of gigs when he was 16. In 1988 he sat in with Lester Bowie at the Detroit Institute of Arts and two years later moved to New York. By the mid '90s he was a bona fide star and, despite the turmoil within the recording industry and the broader contraction of the jazz business, his career has shown no sign of retreat.

A bit of restraint

Back at the Blue Note, Carter's trio continued to hit hard throughout the set. The elemental power of the organ and its grits 'n' gravy lineage suit the saxophonist's gutbucket temperament, and Gibbs and King put out enough energy to keep him stoked. No wonder the trio has lasted 10 years.

In the middle of the set, Carter cued up a little-known ballad by Byas called "Gloria" that's steeped in romance. Carter's a cappella introductory cadenza sneaked up on the tune, and aside from a growling multi-phonic -- where Carter played two notes at once, a playful love bite -- he played the melody with a tender caress and bedroom eyes.

King swept his brushes across the snare drum in a walking tempo, and Gibbs outlined the warm harmony. Carter's virile vibrato, wide and deep, picked up intensity, and as the tension built, you could feel the audience leaning forward, bracing for an explosion. But this time, Carter played it cool, and the music soared higher for it. With J.C. on the set, you've got to be ready for anything.

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or


Concert of Colors: Thursday-July 15. Midtown Detroit: Max M. Fisher Music Center, Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Free admission. 313-624-0215. www.concertofcolors

5th Don Was Detroit "All-Star Revue, Detroit Jazz City Edition Featuring James Carter, Sheila Jordan, Regina Carter, Marcus Belgrave and more. 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Orchestra Hall, Max M. Fisher Music Center. 3711 Woodward.

The James Carter Organ Trio -- Carter, tenor sax; Gerard Gibbs, organ; Leonard King, drums -- performing "Come Sunday" (Duke Ellington):


"I'll tell you an interesting guy that I heard, was a man named James Carter. The night before, I spent with [members of Carter's current electric band, drummer] Calvin [Weston] and Jamaladeen [Tacuma, electric bassist]. And the next night I go into practice, and in walks James Carter. So I ask him, he talked about his control over his instrument and he went into [talking about] Eric Dolphy. And I asked him what he thought about Anthony Braxton's music, and he dropped his head and said, "What can you say?"

 So I said to him, "One courtesy deserves another. I'll be there tonight when you play," and lemme tell you! I'm backstage, and that band starts, and Jamaladeen and Calvin... you know there's a difference between the blues and rhythm and blues, and man, when that band started, the intensity of the new rhythm and blues that they played! Carter is off stage, and when he walked in he stunned me with what he do! Know what he did? He made one harmonic sound, [imitating] eeerrrrrrrrgh, and then he walked off the fucking stage! And he comes back and makes another sound. Now, when he starts playing, when he was confronted, when he had to deal with that rhythm and blues shit, it wasn't about notes. And when James did this obbligato, man, it wasn't just technical, it was passionate! So James, at the end of that first number came and gave us his theme that demonstrated all of his control, and it was something.

 This is where I almost cried. He starts a piece, alone, and he's got a sense of humor, and he knew he had the audience, and he started playing "Good Morning Heartache". Gross, I was almost reduced to tears by what he did. I thought of Charlie Gayle, and he gave us that, but he also gave us Don Byas, and then he played softly, and went into a bossa nova...

 When he walked off, I'm standing there mesmerized, and he sees me and comes over and I say, "Hey, give me some more of that shit!" [laughs] I gotta hear that band again, cause man, the music is alive!"

James Carter (musician)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

James Carter (born January 3, 1969) is an American jazz musician

Carter was born in Detroit, Michigan, and learned to play under the tutelage of Donald Washington, becoming a member of his youth jazz ensemble Bird-Trane-Sco-NOW!! On May 31, 1988, at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), Carter was a last-minute addition for guest artist Lester Bowie which turned into an invitation to play with his new quintet (forerunner of his New York Organ Ensemble) in New York that following November at the now defunct Carlos 1 jazz club. This NY invite was pivotal in Carter's career, putting him in musical contact with the world and he moved to New York two years later. He has been prominent as a performer and recording artist on the jazz scene since the late 1980s, playing saxophones, flute, and clarinets. As a young man, he attended Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, becoming the youngest faculty member at the camp. He first toured Europe (Scandinavia) with the International Jazz Band in 1985 at the age of 16. On his album Chasin' the Gypsy (2000), he recorded with his cousin Regina Carter, a jazz violinist.

Carter has won the Critic's and Reader's Choice award for baritone saxophone several years in a row from Down Beat magazine. He has performed, toured and played on albums with Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Frank Lowe & the Saxemble, Kathleen Battle, the World Saxophone Quartet, Cyrus Chestnut, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Mingus Big Band.[1]

Carter is an authority on vintage horns, and he owns an extensive collection of them.[2]


1991: Tough Young Tenors: Alone Together
1994: J.C. on the Set
1995: Jurassic Classics
1995: The Real Quietstorm
1996: Conversin' with the Elders
1998: In Carterian Fashion
2000: Layin' in the Cut
2000: Chasin' the Gypsy
2003: Gardenias for Lady Day
2004: Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge (with David Murray, Franz Jackson and Johnny Griffin)[3]
2005: Out of Nowhere
2005: Gold Sounds (Tribute to Pavement)
2008: Present Tense
2009: Heaven on Earth
2011: Caribbean Rhapsody
2011: At the Crossroads


^ "Biography",
^ Stern, Chip "Jazz Instruments: James Carter blows through saxophone history", Jazz Times (June 2000).
^ Kelsey, Chris, "Jazz Reviews: Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge", Jazz Times (June 2004)

External links

Official Website:

P. Mauriat Artist Profile Page
High kicks and belly blows — article (with photos) by Tony Gieske
James Carter — biography from American International Artists
MusicMatch Guide

Concert review:

Photographed live at Jazz Alley — photos by Bruce C Moore
Edutain-The James Carter Discography
James Carter Interview at
James Carter Organ Trio review, Bimhuis Amsterdam, in Dutch, with photos by Julia Free
Review of At the Crossroads CD