The Song, Not the Singer
"File under: jazz." Those three telling words sit in tiny print above the UPC bar code on the back of violinist Regina Carter's third and latest album, Rhythms of the Heart. Understandably record store drones need to be instructed about the contents of this compact disc, lest it land in the new-age bin. A photograph that looks like a cross between spin art and an Impressionist painting decorates the blurry cover, shot from above. Carter, swathed in a long red dress, swirls around in several yards of white tulle, appearing almost enveloped. The only part of her that is somewhat identifiable: her head, sprouting neatly wrapped dreadlocks. Instead of gazing straight into the camera, her eyes look downward.
Slick, stylized, an art director's triumph, the album cover is the sort that makes record executives foam at the mouth, leaving them enraged and puzzled as to how they can easily "sell" an artist to the public. Aside from the small Verve logo (founded by producer/impresario Norman Granz, Verve is considered one of the premier jazz labels) neatly placed in the layout, and the equally fuzzy yet more conventional picture of Carter wielding her instrument on the back, there's little hint that this is a jazz album by a violinist. And that's just on the outside.
A brief listen yields a stunning smorgasbord of musical styles, each offering more tempting than the last. The gorgefest includes "Mojito," an undulating Afro-Cuban jazz tune by Steve Turre; "Mandingo Street," a complex African melody by Cameroonian bassist and vocalist Richard Bona; several hardbop and smooth jazz songs penned by and performed with acclaimed pianist Kenny Barron; "By the Brook," a bossa nova-sounding piece written by guitarist Romero Lubambo; "Oh, Lady, Be Good!," a standard by the Gershwin brothers; and even a reggae-tinged version of the soul classic "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," with lugubrious vocals by Cassandra Wilson. At the forefront of each number, however, is Carter, coaxing mellifluous sounds from her violin like a schooled singer working a seasoned set of pipes.
Carter previously recorded two smooth jazz albums for Atlantic Records that went nowhere. After extricating herself from a ridiculously long contract, she jumped to the venerable Verve. Rhythms of the Heart, her label debut released in May 1999, while superb, sadly is an aberration in today's music marketplace. They don't make them like this anymore. Or more to the point, major record companies rarely allow their artists such freedom to create what some consider an utterly schizophrenic album. With the vast amount of CDs showing up in stores (and in critics' mailboxes) every day, promoting an artist becomes more about selling a concept than spotlighting talent, a view that often stifles creativity.
"On this record I got away with it by saying that the concept was rhythm, trying to pound it down people's throats!" Carter says, laughing heartily on the phone from her apartment in New York City. On any given day her CD changer may hold works by artists such as Algerian vocalist Cheb Mami, jazz diva Shirley Horn, and Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt. She assures that the eclecticism of her album clearly mirrors her own musical taste and is not reflective of some arbitrary need to be different, though just the fact that she's a woman playing violin in the jazz genre is quite distinctive in itself.
Her mother hadn't intended for Carter to be a jazz musician. The plan was for her to become a classical soloist. As a four-year-old, the Detroit native was steeped in the Suzuki violin method, which schools children as young as age two in the basics of classical music. While the years of relentless practicing grew monotonous for Carter, she became re-energized by discovering jazz through a friend, who gave her records featuring violinists Noel Pointer and Jean-Luc Ponty. "I thought, Here's some other kind of music that I like; it's freer," Carter explains, "but I had not one idea what was in store."
She began casually to learn to play solos over the chord changes on the records. But the decision to totally immerse herself in jazz came soon after, when another friend (now Grammy-nominated vocalist), Carla Cook, took her to see the legendary French fiddler Stéphane Grappelli, known for his work with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt's Quintet of the Hot Club of France. "I was really blown away," Carter recalls, "and I told my mother, 'That's it: I'm playing jazz.'"
After a two-year stint at the New England Conservatory and a return to Michigan to finish school at Oakland University, Carter joined the Detroit-based female jazz ensemble Straight Ahead. In the early Nineties she moved to New York, eventually becoming a member of the famed chamber jazz outfit the String Trio of New York. In 1995 she went solo, embracing what she calls the "pop-jazz" genre and releasing a self-titled album on Atlantic, and then in 1997 Something for Grace, named for her mom, who repeatedly had discouraged her from pursuing a career in jazz.
In the intervening years, Carter was voted number one jazz violinist in the 46th annual critics' poll in the prestigious jazz magazine Down Beat, and she has performed alongside more prominent musicians than you can shake a bow at. Forget about Kevin Bacon. Playing six degrees of Regina Carter leads to a slew of big names in almost any genre: Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Kenny Barron, Steve Turre, Max Roach, Mary J. Blige, Tanya Tucker, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Patti LaBelle, Billy Joel, and Lauryn Hill.
For the past several years she has played with Turre's ensemble at the famed downtown New York City nightspot Sweet Basil; her own recently formed acoustic group now graces that club's stage as well. Given the choice of being a sideman or a leader, Carter chooses not to choose: "I like both equally. Isn't that funny? Every sideman should have to be a leader at least once in his life because he would not give a leader as much grief," she says, bursting out in wild laughter.
While the most distinguished women in jazz have chosen the piano or the voice as their chief instruments, Carter has no plans to relinquish her violin anytime soon. "I feel like I'm at a point in my career where I still have so much to learn," she notes. The record company and conventional promoters claim she'd be wise to hone her voice, but for Carter, working on her vocals is not in the long-term scheme of things. Although the media spotlight generally is reserved for singers, she's satisfied quietly toiling away on her stringed instrument, perfecting her technique and writing songs. "A lot of the people at the label say, 'Oh, do you sing? You should sing.'" she says. "But trust me, if I ever sing, I better sound a lot better than I do now. That or they'll run me out of town!"
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