In honor of the magnificent violinist Regina Carter’s birthday, here’s a feature that I had the honor writing about her for Jazziz in 2010 around the release of Reverse Thread.
It was the first day of spring, a mild, cloudless Sunday, a lovely day to sit on a bench on a tree-lined path in the upper quintile of Central Park for a conversation with Regina Carter. After a jam-packed winter itinerary—a late January performance of a commissioned violin concerto by Billy Childs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, then a month on the road with the Monterey All-Stars, comprising Barron and his trio, Kurt Elling, and Russell Malone, and here-and-there gigs with her working quintet—Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, and Alvester Garnett on drums—in advance of her new CD, Reverse Thread [E1], a meticulously constructed 12-tune program of folk and pop songs harvested from various spots in continental and diasporic Africa. With the possible exception of the 2003 date, Paganini: After A Dream, on which Carter played a recital comprising French Impressionism, tango, and bossa nova on the magnificent 1743 violin that belonged to Nicolò Paganini, Reverse Threads, which Carter produced herself, is the first document that completely represents her intentions, from the repertoire to the actual recording process.
The back story dates to a morning in September 2006, when Carter—then residing in a Central Park West apartment that was visible from the spot where we sat—received a phone call from the MacArthur Foundation announcing that she had received a “genius grant” of $500,000, no strings attached.
“I hadn’t had my coffee, and thought it was a prank,” she said. After it became apparent that she hadn’t been punked, she added, “I couldn’t move, just stared out the window for a while.”
The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous: A month earlier, Carter had lost a breach of contract lawsuit for having cancelled a concert the previous year after the death of her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in the Detroit public school system. “It lasted a year, and cost me a pretty penny that I didn’t have,” she said. “My mom had beat cancer four times before, but they said cancer was a preexisting condition, and that I should have known better than to take the gig.”
After paying off debts and purchasing a mortgage on the New Jersey house that she presently shares with Garnett, her husband since 2005, Carter sought to actualize a long-standing dream of making a “world music” record. “Detroit was ethnically diverse, and I was exposed to a lot of music from different cultures at a very early age,” she said. “At some point, I noticed that all the music I heard from all over the planet had an instrument that was either a violin or related to it.” A Suzuki-trained child prodigy on track to a classical career, Carter discovered jazz in high school, contracted out on various gigs (in tenth grade, she toured with the pop group Brainstorm, opening for, among other acts, Michael Jackson), and developed a predisposition to partake of the many musical flavors available in the Motor City’s diverse ethnic mix.
Carter’s initial intention was to “lean more towards Middle Eastern sounds,” but as she investigated, and heard “interesting music that I thought was from Cuba or Puerto Rico, or even Ireland, but always turned out to be indigenous music from different parts of Africa,” she transitioned to a different path. She spent a day at Manhattan’s World Music Institute, “just picking stuff—I bought something from almost everywhere.” Several of her musicians made suggestions, as did Randy Weston. But as Carter began to select the raw materials that resonated—the final cut includes tunes from Mali (Amadou and Mariam’s “Atistiya”), Madagascar (“Zerapiki”), Uganda’s Jews (“Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula [The Child Will Never Walk”]), and Puerto Rico (“Un Aguinaldo Pa Regina” by trombonist Papo Vazquez)—she became fascinated more with finding connective unitary threads and less concerned with differentiating the idiomatic particulars.
“I was thinking how we’re all related, how we all come from the same place,” she said. “To think of the music and culture of Africa back in the days of slavery, where the slave ships dropped people off, how those people then mixed with other cultures, and the music and the art that emerged from that became intriguing. Most of this music is not of my culture, but somehow it made me react emotionally. Beauty is beauty, wherever it comes from. Now, if something strikes me, it doesn’t mean I can translate it on my instrument, or with a group. A piece might not be what I thought it was. Those got tossed, and I narrowed it down to what I thought worked for us.”
For Carter, “us” meant a reconfigured ensemble. Before beginning her research, she recruited accordionist Holshouser in lieu of pianist Xavier Davis, and added Sissoko, a native of Mali. “I wanted the sound to be more chamber,” she says. “I wanted the group to be extremely quiet, and I wanted another instrument as quiet as violin—kora is even softer. I wanted to strip away as much amplification as I could. I don’t use a monitor, and Alvester can play extremely quiet. Whether I used electric or acoustic bass, I wanted an acoustic sound. I wanted to have improvisation and still connect to the jazz world. Otherwise, I would have hired a completely African band, and gone inside the music to try to understand everything about it. The album is my take as a Westerner and as a jazz musician.”
Over two years, Carter conceptualized the material, assigned arrangements, and whipped things into shape. “I cut stuff out,” she says. “A lot of this music doesn’t have deep harmonic content—it’s about the groove and the rhythm, creating a hypnotic effect, and you can’t have long solos over these sections. Not to say they’re simple, but they presented another challenge. The beauty was in the simplicity. The task was to try to make it fit into our world, to impart a contemporary feeling without losing the original beauty—not go into playing pyrotechnics or try to force intricacy. Sometimes I’d get into trying to make something hip, but I was taking the hipness out of it. I had to get out of my own way, if you will, and just let the music by.”
“When I was younger, I felt I had to prove something—and in a way, you do,” Carter reflected. “Now I’m very much at peace with where I am and who I am. I didn’t know whether anyone would pick this record up or not. But I needed to do it to satisfy my soul, and it was huge to be able to bring on only people who shared my vision.”
Towards that end, E1 honcho Chuck Mitchell, and violinist John Blake, serving as producer, helped Carter to eschew placing her soloistic abilities front and center, as on her six highly produced leader recordings since 1995 for Atlantic and Verve. Instead, she privileges collective dialog, her improvised declamations weaving in and out of the ensemble flow. In this regard, it’s useful to compare Reverse Threads to Carter’s eponymous Atlantic launch date record for Atlantic, on which, framed by personnels and producers, she represents a pan-stylistic sensibility—plugged-in, synthy-worldbeatish-funkish fusion tracks for the smooth jazz market, a Latin track, entr’acte duos with djembe, a concluding ballad duo that ends with a classical cadenza, all impeccably played—on which her tonal personality, as Greg Tate put it in the liner notes, is “better described as [a musician] who plays jazz rather than strictly a jazz musician.”
“They needed a concept first, which I felt was putting the cart before the horse,” Carter says of her experience with Atlantic, and, after 1998, with Verve, which repositioned her as a hardcore jazz musician. “Sometimes A&R people had difficulty understanding that I DID like all this music. I grew up with Parliament and Funkadelics, all that stuff from Detroit. I wasn’t trying to do a record to please everybody; I was pleasing myself. I learned to understand the business reasons, though—you’re a product now, and they’re trying to sell a product, so sometimes you’re put in a box.”
The box was literal as well as metaphorical. “In the studio, you’re all in separate rooms,” she says. “The minute you put a glass in front of me I can’t feel you. To hear someone coming through headphones and not from their instrument is the most unnatural way of playing music. Then you see that red light go on, and the panic starts, because all of a sudden you want to be perfect.”
She recalled being urged to improve her solo on a Kenny Barron tune while recording Rhythms of the Heart, her first Verve. “I thought, yeah, maybe I could,” Carter said. “I tried and tried. After a while, Kenny spoke up. He said, ‘You know what? You are where you are today, and you are who you are.’”
“We recorded Reverse Thread all in the same room, next to each other. I wanted some dirt, so to speak, and not have the mindset when I was playing, ‘I can go in and fix that later.’ I wanted it to be about the band and the performance of the piece, not about me.”
During her first years in New York, Carter eluded the box by participating in various creative contexts—with Tate in Black Rock Coalition hits, the String Trio of New York, such “downtown” bands as David Soldier’s String Quartet—that “stretched me in directions I’d never been.” Perhaps the most lasting such experience occurred in 1996, when Carter toured Blood on the Fields for three months with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. “Wynton wrote it to be played down and dirty, like a fiddle player,” she says. “None of the fluff. I hadn’t had much opportunity to play like that before, and I enjoyed it. It can be hard to get rid of the stuff you’ve learned, but it felt natural. In a situation like that, or swinging, I have to be conscious not to use vibrato—we spend so much time in European classical music studying how to get that vibrato, and now I’m trying to lose it!”
In the liner notes to Rhythms of the Earth, Tate noted that Carter “now believed that swing is the ideal idiom for her instrument.” Indeed, she swings like the dickens throughout those proceedings, as she did at the end of 2009 with singer Allen Harris’ unit during a week-long working vacation at Umbria Winter Jazz in Orvieto, where she’d joined her husband, there for that gig, to prepare to play Childs’ Violin Concerto.
She discussed the technical particulars. Classical violinists, she said, trained to use the whole bow and a very light stroke, deploy so much vibrato on one note that they get to the next note late. Furthermore, using so much bow causes them to phrase on top of the beat rather than laying in the middle of it.
“Classical is my mother language, but I don’t really speak it any more,” she said. “Sometimes I still have to make a conscious effort to be careful about vibrato and phrasing, and to breathe more. In classical music, you sit straight up and you’re ready. With this kind of music, you’ve got to find the groove. You have to dance to the style—the way you move your body is how you’ll play. If I get too excited and nervous, I tend to play too much.”
Most important, Carter said, referencing her early Suzuki ear training, is treating the assimilation of various musical idioms as a process analogous to learning to speak a language. “It’s not about playing the notes exactly,” she said. “You’ve got to listen to records, and, more important, go to live concerts and study people, then tape yourself and hear if you’re doing that. Sometimes I do these Q&A sessions, and parents whose children are playing violin ask me to tell their kid that you have to learn classical music before you can play any other kind of music. ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s what you have to learn if you want to play classical music.’ Every language has its own grammar, its own technique.”
That being said, Carter follows a more generalized methodology on Reverse Thread. “There’s different violins all over the continent, and so many ways of playing them,” she says. “I’d love to hone in one specific place, to spend some time and learn, say, Ghanaian fiddle music or the violin of Uganda. But this was more about my being a vocalist with the instrument.”
“My mother’s thing was that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it,” Carter says. “When she died, I felt like an orphan—‘I can’t do this by myself; I’m not a grownup yet.’ You’re flailing for a while, and then you realize, ok, you’re good to go.” Indeed, for Carter, the grieving experience seemed to trigger long-standing aspirations to explore identity—both genealogical and intellectual—more meaningfully in her musical production.
“A lot of times in the black community, horrible things were not to be spoken about,” she said. “My great-grandmother was a slave, and when my grandmother asked her about the markings on her back, she told her what they were from and then said, ‘We are not ever speaking about this again.’ My mother told me, but that’s all she got. Which is unfortunate, because it’s a part of our history that no one wants to deal with. And we need to deal with it. We need to know.”
Carter’s grandmother graduated from Morris Brown College in 1915 with a degree in pedagogy. “I look at her name, Sarah Vandousa McCaskill. Where does Vandousa come from? As an African-American, I have many roots, and I’m interested in all of them. It would be nice to know if I was connected to some specific tribe, or a people or an area. Growing up in the ‘60s and watching television, I experienced that Whoopi Goldberg thing of seeing the Prell commercials with the blonde hair going across the screen, and then looking at myself. I was always jealous. I’d see women from East India or Thailand, and they’d have all this jewelry, and see African women with all their garb—all of that stuff. I just thought, ‘I want something like that. Who am I? What is it to be an American?’”
Which are questions that Carter intends to explore for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue with this, but maybe hone in on an area,” he said. “I’ve just scratched the tip of the iceberg—why not push the door open and see what else I find?. But let’s see what happens. I always think I know what I’m going to do, but I’m like a kid in a candy store—every day I change my mind.”