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Scullers Jazz Club
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Given the plaudits saxophone powerhouse James Carter has garnered for his role in helping to propel jazz full tilt into the future over the past two decades, it’s surprising to discover that, first, he’s yet to reach his forties (he’s 39), and second, that his contemporary spin on jazz continues to be fueled by deep respect and intimate knowledge of the tradition.

For his Emarcy debut, Present Tense, once again the young veteran demonstrates why he is considered to be one of the premiere musicians of his generation. Produced by esteemed jazz sage Michael Cuscuna, the ten-pack of animated tunes range from jazz standards given new rhythmic traction (for example, a hip hop sensibility on Victor Young’s “Song of Delilah” that Clifford Brown put on the map) to three originals, including the sunny, Brazilian-tinted “Bossa J.C.”

“I titled this album Present Tense because it captures where I am right now,” says Carter, who plays a trinity of saxophones (soprano, tenor and baritone), flute and bass clarinet. “This is what appeals to me right now. I’ve always had eclectic tastes, so the styles of these pieces are diverse. But I’m also dealing with more lyricism on this album, and I’m making more concise statements in the music versus playing out for 10 or 11 minutes. Some of the tunes here are in the four-minute range.”

For the recording Carter enlisted a top-drawer support group, including the core quartet of trumpeter Dwight Adams, pianist D.D. Jackson, bassist James Genus and drummer Victor Lewis, with guest appearances by guitarist Rodney Jones and percussionist Eli Fountain. The band swings with gusto, takes flight with exuberance and ease, and cools the proceedings down with balladic hush.

In his first time working with Carter, Cuscuna says that he wanted to showcase “the totality of who he is,” which he felt had yet to be revealed. “In going through James’ entire output prior to recording Present Tense, it struck me that many of his albums were ingenious concepts. As successful as each was, none of them captured the breadth of James’ mastery of this music. When you see him live, he can reach for any decade in this music’s history as easily as he can reach for any reed sitting around him on the bandstand. We wanted to bring that to the fore on this album.”

Present Tense, Carter’s first album in three years, adds a dynamic new chapter in the Detroit-born, New York-based saxophonist’s story, which took root in the early ‘90s, first as a sideman with such mentors as Lester Bowie and as a leader in his own right.

Carter spent his youthful days taking saxophone lessons, studying the classics of the masters broadcast on several Detroit public radio jazz shows, and voraciously listening to any records that came into his possession. Around the house Carter discovered the two-album Duke Ellington 70th Birthday Concert and The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Volume 8. “That record covered Billie’s development as a singer in the late ‘30s and early ’40s,” he recalls. “That’s where I heard Harry Sweets Edison and Lester Young for the first time. The first two records I bought were Eddie Harris’ Playin’ With Myself and Basie Jam No. 3, an impromptu session with Joe Pass, Louie Bellson, Benny Carter, Eddie Davis, Clark Terry, Al Grey and Al Heard."

Given his love of classic jazz, Carter was erroneously grouped into that ‘90s catchall category of young jazz lions. But instead of expressing jazz neoconservatism, he was in motion, breaking new ground with his trad-meets-avant style of propulsion and his dazzling displays of reeds pyrotechnics as well as his heartfelt romanticism.

Carter launched his solo career with two superb DIW/Columbia discs. Recorded in 1993 and 1994 respectively, JC on the Set and Jurassic Classics, were initially released in Japan and then issued in the U.S. Both were huge successes that prompted the All Music Guide to Jazz to proclaim, “James Carter has unlimited potential, and he seems destined to be one of the giants of jazz.” Soon he was being dubbed the Motor City Madman, based on his distinctive and oftentimes thrilling style.

In 1994, Carter signed with Atlantic Jazz and recorded a series of superb albums, beginning with his all-ballads gem, The Real Quietstorm, inspired by the B-side of Charlie Parker’s Bird Symbols LP. In 1995, Rolling Stone hailed the charismatic Carter as an up-and-comer to watch, and a few years later the magazine gave him high scores for the two CDs he simultaneously released in 2000 (his final releases on Atlantic, which soon dissolved its jazz division): the funky-vibed Layin’ in the Cut (his first album with an all-electric band, featuring among others guitarist Marc Ribot) and the Django Reinhardt-inspired Chasin’ the Gypsy (which included his cousin Regina Carter on violin and Romero Lubambo on guitar). The doubleheader was well-received in both pop and jazz circles. Rolling Stone wrote that “…saxophonist James Carter is as near as jazz gets nowadays to a Young Turk—not some ironically avant-post-rock experimentalist but a cocky scene stealer with…a knack for coming up with noticeable records.”

When his former producer Yves Beauvais moved from Atlantic to Columbia, Carter followed in 2002 and a year later recorded a new album of ballads with strings, titled Gardenias for Lady Day. Also in 2002 Carter garnered rave reviews for his appearance with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra written specifically for him by composer Roberto Sierra. In 2004 Carter received the Dr. Alaine Locke Award, given annually to individuals who have provided exemplary service and leadership in the promotion of African-American culture.

The winner of several DownBeat critics and readers polls, Carter today continues to tour with his organ trio and often subs in the World Saxophone Quartet. Carter recorded his trio in 2005 for the Half Note release, Out of Nowhere, and in 2006 recorded Gold Sounds (Brown Brothers Recordings) with pianist Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Ali Jackson in a collaborative outing of covers of songs by the pop band Pavement.

When Carter arrived on the jazz scene in the ‘90s, he was viewed as a brash youngster chomping at the bit to burst out of the gate with his saxophones. A couple of years ago when asked if his life as a soloist and bandleader had changed since he was in his thirties, he replied, “Well, I still feel the same way, but I’m able to use all the different shapes and forms in my playing better.” He paused, then added with a mélange of metaphors: “I can ping pong with someone just as well as throw the shot put. And I can do everything else in between. There are more than just a couple of events in a decathlon. I want to play a piece differently every time. That’s a hell of a tightrope walk. But when you have different attacks in your arsenal, it’s a much easier balancing act.”

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