Although it has been only two years since the release of multireed phenom James Carter’s last album, it feels like an eternity. Maybe that’s because his boisterous playing and long-winded solos were so in your face for much of the ’90s that his recent absence seemed more notable than his ninja-esque assault of split tones, slap-tongue bleeps, and multiphonic shrieks. His 1998 album, In Carterian Fashion, saw the pyrotechnics that had made his late-’80s playing with Lester Bowie such a thrill beginning to wane. His solos had become thesis statements that explored the history of the jazz saxophonists, reaching all the way back to Don Byas and all the way up to Albert Ayler. At first, it was a stunning revelation to witness a 20-something harness so much power and wisdom, but his laborious cadenzas soon turned into piss breaks for many audience members. His longstanding band at the time—pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Tani Tabbal—looked bored during Carter’s long-ass solos.
Gratuitous grandstanding aside, Carter established himself as one of the greatest instrumentalists and stylists of his generation, even though his music was remarkably old-hat. He was definitely overdue in finding a new bag. And, apparently, Carter himself realized that his game was played—which probably explains why his two simultaneous new albums, Layin’ in the Cut and Chasin’ the Gypsy, are decidedly not in the bebop vein. But, even though they don’t feature the same rhythm section as his previous releases, they ultimately find Carter doing mostly the same tricks.
The electric-funk party on Layin’ in the Cut should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard Carter drop quotes from Parliament’s “Flashlight” or the theme from Sanford & Son into a whimsical rendition of an old horse like “Lester Leaps In.” Having grown up in the rich funk/soul/jazz haven of Detroit, Carter has brilliantly absorbed the dialects of Soul Power, Motown, and P-Funk into his own cipher. But on Layin’ in the Cut, he demonstrates the reasons why some great jazz musicians fail at convincingly giving up the funk: Carter resembles fellow multireed wizard David Murray in that he’s at his funkiest when he’s not explicitly playing funk. Both saxophonists are prone to overplaying on top of lackluster grooves, in what seems to be an attempt to conceal weak material. And although Layin’ in the Cut is far superior to the misguided placebo funk of those mindless Bill Laswell projects, Carter’s motor-booty affair doesn’t exactly channel the Mothership.
Basically a record whose parts are greater than its sum, Layin’ in the Cut features some nice grungy guitar licks from both unsung ax-wielder Jef Lee Johnson and the downtown scene’s Marc Ribot. Johnson opts for the brazen Hendrixian blues funk; Ribot delves into more avant-gardish Spanish-guitar spasms. On the quite un-Motownish “Motown Mash,” the two guitarists interlock like Jimmy Nolen and Phelps Collins from James Brown’s band, but in a looser, harmolodic manner. And speaking of harmolodic, the record also has the support of bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. Tacuma’s elastic spanks ground the joyous process in a nice understated way that seemed to elude him on past recordings. Weston is often lead-footed when playing with guitarist James Blood Ulmer, but here he seems more agile.
The jolting strut of “Terminal B” furnishes the record’s greatest moment. Weston’s stuttering snare drums and the rough-hewn textures from the guitars create a vibrant rhythm that would sound right at home on a Bjork album. As Carter punctuates the loopy melody with blood-curdling squeaks and stinging staccato figures, he reminds you that the soprano saxophone wasn’t initially intended for Quiet Storm serenades.
But it’s all remarkably forgettable. Despite Carter’s multitude of passionate shrieks, screeches, and bleeps, the bossa-nova boogie of “GP” and the yearning slow drag of “Drafadelic in D Flat” amount to nothing more than an aggressive version of Grover Washington Jr.’s mid-’70s CTI/Kudo albums. It’s admirable that Layin’ in the Cut doesn’t bullshit you with the cheap ’70s Miles Davis-inspired sentimentality that has annoyingly become the vogue of late, but it still offers a mother lode of cliche that’s been beaten to death.
Chasin’ the Gypsy offers no grand revelation, either, but it far surpasses Layin’ in the Cut in crafting an intriguing soundscape for Carter’s adventurous playing. Inspired by the alluring exotica of guitarist Django Reinhardt, Chasin’ the Gypsy is a transportive collection of originals and standards in which Carter’s sonic effects are more evenly distributed and emotionally convincing.
And, just as the material is more durable, the overall playing is more seductive. On the opener, “Nuages,” Carter’s burly baritone saxophone croons the melody splendidly, without his customary trickery. His tone is as robust as ever, but with the magical accompaniment of Charlie Giodano’s ethereal accordion and the crisp web of strings from guitarists Jay Berliner and Romero Lubambo, Carter’s majestic playing gets the lush cushion it deserves.
Surrounded by the opulent textures of violin, guitars, accordion, and percussion, Carter saunters through the melodies with the ripe lyricism of a romantic warrior determined to conquer all unexpected hearts. The infectious “La Derniere Bergere” and the divine “Manoir de Mes Reves” showcase some of Carter’s finest tenor work to date. Sounding much more confident—without the need to demonstrate his knowledge of the entire history of the saxophone in eight bars—he mostly allows melody to reign over technique. Even when he squeezes in some dissonance, on “La Derniere Bergere,” it doesn’t become a distraction. “Manoir de Mes Reves” and his own “I’ll Never Be the Same” illustrate his persuasiveness as a balladeer; he often scoops up the melody in classic Ben Webster fashion, embellishing it with oddball effects that betray his love for Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Carter does cut loose on the spirited title track, which features him matching virtuosic wit with violinist Regina Carter and guitarists Berliner and Lubambo. At the beginning of the tune, the two Carters play the wry melody in unison, creating a jolting harmolodic texture. Then, as drummer Joey Baron lays down a fast-paced shuffle, Carter & Co. commence a playful cutting contest. The ensemble revisits the jaunty feel of James Carter’s “Avalon,” if not with quite as much intensity.
The authoritative ease, compositional growth, and timeless splendor of Chasin’ the Gypsy will absolutely reinvigorate the interests of those who thought Carter was becoming nothing more than an all-too-zealous improviser. As James Brown hinted in the title of his great social-commentary song, “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”: Style without substance can go only so far. CP