Friday, May 23, 2008

James Carter in the "Present Tense"

I have a friend who likes to describe James Carter as the best, greasiest, most intensely fatty soul food of the jazz world. There is no doubt in my mind that that description is accurate; if you have too much you'll get sick, but when you're in a certain mood nothing can really satisfy you but a good helping of JC. This is just as true of "Present Tense" as it is of any Carter album, but for a number of reasons "Present Tense" isn't just another Carter album. For one thing, he stays away from saxophones on three tracks (he plays flute on "Dodo's Bounce" and bass clarinet on both "Bro. Dolphy" and "Shadowy Sands"), and as opposed to prominently featuring his tenor and soprano playing as he normally does, he devotes a few absolutely burnin' tracks to his baritone.

"Present Tense" is of a certain aesthetic that belongs to James Carter alone- a sort of time-warp that manages to reinvent 50s Blue Note hard-bop as it would have been played by a free jazz obsessed 90s technician who can do all of the things expected of a free jazz obsessed 90s technician. Many people think of Carter's playing more as a series of random tricks he can do on his instruments (insanely high altissimo squawks, slap tonguing, etc) than any sort of legitimate harmonic and melodic invention. While that may be fair to a degree, Carter has never struck me as the sort of person looking to impress jazz critics. Carter was never set to be the next Coltrane; I think Carter falls more in the tradition of entertainers like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another multi-reedist, who would sing into his flute and play two saxophones at once.

While Carter may not be particularly innovative, one listen to a track like "Rapid Shave," featuring his baritone playing, could convert anyone but the most jaded Brecker-ite. His playing is just so joyful, and catchy, and greasy, that it makes you want to see him regain his stature as Downbeat's permanent baritone saxophone critic's poll winner (he lost to Gary Smulyan last year for the first time in God knows how long). Of his sidemen, the most memorable is Dwight Adams, who deserves much wider exposure. He played brilliantly on Carter's 2004 album "Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge," and he plays just as brilliantly here. His playing is totally different from Carter's; as opposed to using tricks, Adams is only interested in creating gorgeous, simple melodies. On "Tenderly," the closer, he plays one of the most elegant solos I've heard recently from anyone. This album is highly recommended for anyone (this includes musicians who do impressions) who thinks that jazz is just stuffy intellectual gallery music.

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