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The preacher & the saxophone


James Carter’s music enters your body at the feet. Then it works its way through every nook and orifice until you feel as if you’ve been struck by some divine force. His brand of jazz tears away inhibitions and his rambunctious style puts him in a league of his own, unrivaled by his peers.

Those who attend one of Carter’s concerts just might experience the equivalent of a spiritual epiphany. Carter is the preacher, and his calling is to elevate jazz to new realms. Over the years, he has produced a telling and diverse body of work.

"There is something in still being able to pace one’s musical prowess and still be able to find certain nuances in obscure material," he says.

Carter grew up in Detroit in a household where music was a sustaining force. The music he listened to ranged from Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix, which may explain his eclectic approach to jazz. At age 10, he fell in love with the saxophone, but almost quit playing because the music teacher at the elementary school he attended didn’t share his enthusiasm for jazz.

"The teacher would say, ‘Now, class, today we are going to learn how to play a new note.’ The night before I was listening to Duke Ellington and trying to copy some of his licks. Here we are learning a new note when I was trying to play ‘Black Butterfly.’"

Carter’s older brother stopped him from quitting by introducing him to saxophonist and teacher Donald Washington. Washington helped mold Carter’s enthusiasm into the genius that jazz devotees enjoy today.

During his young-lion years, Carter developed his sound by working with straight-ahead jazz leaders such as Wynton Marsalis, who hired him when he was 17, and avant-garde pioneers such as Lester Bowie and Julius Hemphill.

"Jazz has definitely been good to me. It has brought me in touch with individuals that have taught me about myself, " he says. "I was telling my wife the other day that she should thank this piece of plumbing with 24 holes, because it has brought us together, brought us our daughter and transplanted us to New York."

Now at age 31, Carter has five critically acclaimed albums under his belt, and is at the vanguard of a new school of daring, inventive musicians. It’s been nearly two years since he released a new album, but he says that he’s had to take a break to refuel and become adjusted to the rigors of fatherhood.

This month Carter releases two new recordings, packaged together by Atlantic Records. On the first CD, titled Chasing the Gypsy, he explores and reworks the music of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The inspiration to make an album of Reinhardt’s music surfaced from Carter’s passion for ‘30s "hot" jazz. He had been ruminating over the prospect for a while, and it came to fruition while he was touring with classical soprano Kathleen Battle.

While Chasing the Gypsy shows the romantic side of his multifaceted persona, the second offering, Laying in the Cut, is Carter’s foray into the world of electric funk. He says that this album is a continuation of the title composition on his last record, In Carterian Fashion. Ambitious as these two albums are, Carter anticipates that they’ll be attacked.

"I think that most folk will look at Laying in the Cut as my attempt to sell out," he says. "I grew up with funk music and various other grooves in the household and stuff. So it is not as drastic as me doing a George Clinton album," he says.

"People love you as long as you are a young lion, but when you start to branch out and start exploring other possibilities, they want to jump on you."

It’s difficult for some listeners to understand that jazz musicians with Carter’s type of creative restlessness are always looking to break new ground, and don’t remain emulators and young lions for long. They blossom into artists who want their music to become an extension of all that’s positive and productive.

"Look at Buckshot Le Fonque, for example. They said that Branford (Marsalis) was trying to sell out. No, he has an actual enthusiasm about the possible link between jazz and hip hop, and he wanted both to explore it and widen it to a bigger audience. He wanted to introduce hip hop to those traditionalists who wouldn’t look at it, and at the same time give the hip-hop kids the roots to justify their own existence. But it was cloaked into selling out."

Carter understands the potency of jazz, and that it’s more than an obscure art form which appeals only to eccentrics. This music can uplift and educate. And the saxophone is an inanimate object that Carter blows life into, but he knows he has to take his lumps like a man.

"As long as I keep my hand on everything, it’s cool. They said that I can’t be pigeonholed, which is the best compliment that the media can pay to anybody. That should give you the precept that all is fair in music. Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to L. Latimer writes about jazz for the Metro

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