Get Carter

Music - Richard Cook on a Detroit saxophonist who is up there with the all-time greats

A favourite complaint about today's jazz is that there's a shortage of stars, an absence of the kind of singleton genius that used to drive the music forward. Where are our Coltranes, our Parkers? It's not for want of record companies trying to force these blooms out of their budding rosters. Jazz is as open to hype as any part of the music business. But with so much already played and spoken in every jazz vernacular, the possibility of some unheralded titan blazing a new trail seems so remote as to be unbelievable. Lately, we've settled for revisionists, outsiders or players isolating some relatively unexposed part of the music as the messengers of the way forward.

James Carter is a little of all those things. A Detroit-born saxophonist, he is, at 32, old enough to have accrued a stack of experience, yet he is not so separated from his youth that he doesn't still seem a little impetuous and excitingly raw. There's a mad-dog quality to some of his playing, blustering through the range of whichever horn he's playing and breaking phrases to pieces, just to see what will happen when he does it. He emerged at the beginning of the Nineties with a couple of records that sent an electric thrill through jazz: just when we thought we'd heard every trick that the young lions of the period could come up with, here was someone who sounded harsh and untutored much of the time, yet could, when he wanted, play a ballad as unctuously as Ben Webster. He professed an affection not so much for bebop, but for the music of prewar swing; and, besides the ubiquitous tenor, he went back first to the baritone and then the bass saxophone, a behemoth that is all but extinct outside revivalist circles. On Chasin' the Gypsy (Atlantic), one of two simultaneously released new albums, he not only plays Django Reinhardt's "Nuages" on the bass horn, but also brings out the even rarer F-mezzo saxophone, a curious relative of the soprano, for a couple of pieces.

The entire record is dedicated to Reinhardt and his music, which Carter used to tape off local radio programmes when he was a teenager - but "don't call it a tribute", he says. Little danger of that. The old Hot Club feel of the originals is traded for a queer blend of affectionate recitalism and barking irreverence. Carter loves to show off, but not in the way of mere showboating. He shakes the tunes down for what he can get out of them, what new jazz can be hustled out of these old scripts - and if a few feathers are ruffled along the way, so much the better. Even though his supporting band plays delicately - violin, acoustic guitars, bass and light percussion - and they make a gossamer pattern out of such pieces as "La Derniere Ber-gere", this is a pungent re-cord, full of outlandish sounds. It's certainly a more singular affair than the sister disc, Layin' in the Cut (Atlantic), which features Carter in perhaps more self-consciously modern garb. Here, he's blowing over an electric band of two guitars, bass and drums, a juddering, whistling backdrop for some of his most violent improvising. Where Chasin' the Gypsy is natty and wears its esoterica lightly, Layin' in the Cut is meant to be rambunctious. Carter's bandsmen are veterans of the Ornette Coleman and James Blood Ulmer bands, and the saxophonist himself sometimes reminds one of that other great traditionalist-renegade, David Murray, in his own electric-band adventures with Ulmer. But, for all their knockabout style, these pieces - credited for the most part as collective improvisations - are dominated by Carter's sense of control. Even in the coda to the title track, where he's pushing his tenor playing to its most extreme expression, there's an under-lying sense of harmony at the back of his mind: he always plays freely within form, rather than free-form.

The other thing that stands out from both records is Carter's extravagant sound. The great saxophone masters have always "vocalised" themselves: Carter's bellowing in the bottom register of tenor, baritone and bass saxes alike is in a noble lineage, as well as something almost luridly exciting. If you're looking for a leader, there's every reason to get Carter.

Chasin' the Gypsy and Layin' in the Cut are both released by Atlantic

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit