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Well, it took some time. But finally, violinist extraordinaire Regina Carter is releasing solo albums as captivating as her live performances. Since the mid-’90s, Carter has been the pre-eminent jazz violinist of her generation. Her precise intonation and off-the-hook virtuosity have enabled her to play in various European classical settings and chamber-jazz ensembles such as the String Trio of New York; her gutbucket swagger and funky sensibilities have earned her guest spots with the likes of Lauryn Hill and Wynton Marsalis. Unfortunately, those seemingly polarized aesthetics produced two lackluster mid-’90s albums for Atlantic Records that found solo artist Carter trying to enliven smooth jazz with Stephane Grappelli-like gusto. The end results are as convincing as, say, Anthony Braxton covering Kenny G’s “Songbird.”
After a stellar 1998 one-week engagement at the Village Vanguard in which Carter enlisted pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Lewis Nash, and a much-needed label switch from Atlantic to Verve, her solo recording career has taken a turn for the better. Her latest album, Motor City Moments, follows in the footsteps of 1998’s Rhythms of the Heart, which showcased her versatility with a wide range of styles and rhythms, her penchant for pop reinvention, and most important, her kickass instrumental skills. Whereas Rhythms was a superb study in, well, rhythm (4/4 swing, reggae, mambo), Motor City is a riveting reflection on her hometown, Detroit. The albumno surprise hereboasts bristling bebop, down-home blues, and infectious Motown sounds. But this affair is far from clichéd; Carter also draws on the city’s vibrant, yet often overlooked, Latin and avant-jazz scenes.
Carter doesn’t just send musical postcards from home; she also showcases some noteworthy Detroit homeboys. Reed wizard (and cousin) James Carter, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and pianist Barry Harris help underscore the album’s family-funk vibe. Toward the end of Thad Jones’ strutting blues “Don’t Git Sassy,” Regina’s soaring violin joyfully jostles James’ blustery tenor saxophoneit’s as if the Carters are kids again, chasing and teasing each other at the neighborhood playground. Belgrave also graces Alex North’s regal “Love Theme From Spartacus” with a sensuous flugelhorn solo that smolders like embers on a chilly autumn evening. Like Belgrave, Carter focuses on the song’s contoured melody; in the process, she delivers her most pithy statement to date. Harris’ majestic, blues-drenched piano provides the ideal harmonic backing for Carter’s sunny melodic flights on Lucky Thompson’s “Prey Loot.” But the two are at their most intimate on Harris’ misty “Fukai Aijo,” in which Carter’s yearning melody and Harris’ sparkling accompaniment coalesce beautifully.
The disc’s Detroit spirit resounds mightily. Throughout Motor City, guest guitarist Russell Malone’s rhythmic thrust propels Carter’s version of the classic shuffle “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”; the tune brims with youthful glee as it makes plain the sense of abandonment to be found in the city’s troubled streets. (Carter first performed the piece at her first tap-dance recital, when she was only 3 years old.) Carter and Malone’s playfulness is even better displayed on their co-penned hoedown, “Up South,” in which Carter fiddles a butt-grinding backwoods melody against Russell’s spidery picking and slightly Hendrixesque strumming.
Of course, to most people, Detroit is more synonymous with Motown than with bebop or the blues. And like many of her fellow baby boomers, Carter grew up listening to Berry Gordy’s label. On Motor City, she does more than dabble in “The Sound of Young America”she reconfigures two of its classics: Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Mess With Mr. T.” Wonder’s anti-Vietnam War anthem is underscored by a jolting West African rhythm that turns the song’s original theme of justice for young American men off to war into a cry for universal peace. Gaye’s classic ’70s blaxploitation theme song retains its suspenseful fervor; Werner “Vana” Gierig’s piano rumbles throughout, bassist Darryl Hall and guest drummer Lewis Nash thicken the song’s gangster swagger, and Carter’s violin sings the foreboding melody as if it were a damsel in distress.
But despite all the special guests and the diverse Detroit-themed compositions, Carter’s stately ballad “Forever February” steals the show. Here, she forgoes rhythmic gymnastics and embroiders a sultry melody around big-boned bass. This haunting song is a slow-burning exercise of sustained intensityand is destined to become a classic in the city’s enormous songbook.
Like Carter, Israeli-born Miri Ben-Ari has seemingly boundless virtuosity. Her instrumental prowess carries a rhythmic bite, improvisational ingenuity, and hard swagger that inspired the mighty Wynton Marsalis to eschew his Ellingtonian posturing and come out swinging like a prizefighter. On the fierce title track of Ben-Ari’s latest album, Song of the Promised Land, Marsalis’ dazzling solo, refreshingly devoid of his usual vocalization tricks, reminds us why he gets away with so much cockiness. But Ben-Ari and the rest of the ensemblepianist Eric Lewis, drummer Steve Hass, and bassist Matthew Parrishgive Marsalis a run for his money as each matches his unhinged playing blow for blow.
Song of the Promised Land, however, is hardly about virtuosic combat; the album communicates more about communal spirit than competition. Yes, many of the tracks are filled with sonic pyrotechnics, but Ben-Ari also demonstrates her versatility. The lulling waltz “Alice in Wonderland” shines as Ben-Ari’s bright-sounding violin sings the sweet melody with giddy optimism. But as “Diggin In” proves, her sweetness can turn salty. With Lewis’ mammoth piano spurring the ensemble down South for some juke-joint blues, Ben-Ari’s violin does a delightful boogie-woogie dance against Parrish’s strutting bass line. And on “D Blues,” Ben-Ari and crewthanks in part to Hass’ butt-spanking second-line drummingtransport you to the Crescent City.
Given her matriculation in the late Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program, Ben-Ari’s ability to create emotionally resonant swing and blues should come as no surprise. The major props she gets from the likes of Marsalis attest to her status in the world of post-bop. And peep the credit listings on some of New York City’s underground house 12-inches and you’ll likely see Ben-Ari lending her skills. Although Song of the Promised Land doesn’t contain anything that sounds remotely like house, it makes plain her love for groove and for diverse rhythms. On songs such as “Brotherhood” and “Old Fox,” she subtly infuses Afro-Cuban, fusion, and funk elements without forsaking the intricate imperatives of bebop. If she were still alive, Betty Carter would certainly raise an eyebrow at Ben-Ari’s affinity for pop and fusion, but even she would be delighted at how well the young musician incorporates those sounds and others to unleash a voice as unique and utterly recognizable as Carter’s own. CP