James Carter Joins Django Reinhardt Project at Yoshi’s

By IRA STEINGROOT Special to the Planet
Tuesday July 27, 2004

When I first heard James Carter, then 26 years old, at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont in 1995, it felt like what I imagine it would have been like to hear Charlie Parker in 1945 or Ornette Coleman in 1960. I was too young to have experienced the halcyon days of bop or free jazz and did not start listening consciously to jazz until 1962, but I did see Roland Kirk in 1965, Archie Shepp in 1966 and John Coltrane in 1967. Carter had that same kind of energy, as if you were present at the birth of something new and exciting, something that could make you begin all over again. My notes from that first Bay Area appearance by Carter include these words: beautiful, remarkable, phenomenal freedom, weird, experimental, totally accessible, unending stream of ideas, incredible, passionate. This was heady stuff. 

Since then, Carter has visited the Bay Area often and has released many excellent albums, though none of them have been able to capture what I heard that night at Yoshi’s. For that matter, Carter’s live performances have never quite reached the heights he achieved at his Yoshi’s première. His technical abilities are unparalleled whether he’s playing any of the saxophones (soprano, f mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), clarinet, bass clarinet or flute. No performance is without rewarding moments, but no performance has ever seemed as fully realized, as immediate, as that initial experience. His last appearance at Yoshi’s in April of this year ranged from a volcanic tenor solo on “Don’s Idea,” when he seemed to be channeling tenor saxophone great Don Byas, to an overly-intentional performance of “Strange Fruit.” The performance, although sincere, was so literary, dramatic, historical and emotional that it became something less than musical. 

One of Carter’s best albums to date is Chasing the Gypsy (Atlantic), a 2000 homage to the great Gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). Although he will not have the same side players as he did on the album, this date will be focused on the music and memory of Django, certainly the first great non-American jazz musician. Carter is listed as a special guest of the Django Reinhardt Project which features Dorado Schmitt, a Gypsy guitarist and violinist from the Lorraine region of France, French guitarist Samson Schmitt, Ludovic Beier, virtuoso accordionist, and Stephane Grappelli alum Brian Torff on bass. Grappelli was Django’s long-time collaborator in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. 

Django’s music was lyrical, swinging, free, inventive and technically astounding. People are always surprised to find out that the fingers of his left hand had been mutilated in a conflagration of wax flowers in his caravan. He subsequently had the use of only two fingers of that hand. In spite of, or because of, this limitation, he could play runs of notes on the guitar that still seem impossible, even for those with 10 fingers.  

It is equally surprising to imagine an African-American saxophonist born in Detroit in the late ‘60s being attracted to this music. Jazz musicians have always surprised fans by looking at ignored elements of their own tradition for new directions. As we arrive at the fifth generation of this unique music, we see all of these elements of renewal, surprise and the simultaneous tension of conservative synthesis and revolutionary exploration in the playing of Carter. Whether he plays in the galvanic manner of a genie who has just popped out of a lamp or in the more conventionally romantic-melodic style of the Django Reinhardt Project, Carter is the most promising player of his generation and what he plays is cutting edge jazz.