|JC on the Set--James Carter|
Carter has a fat, honking sound on all the saxophones he uses, and this a good thing. He phrases wonderfully, and there is sass and a fast-quipping edge here, particularly in the galvanizing solo he takes on Ellington's "Caravan"; honks, blorts, grunts and street-crossing jabber make you think of a flurry of voices all singing into the same microphone. Ellington had made a name for arrangements that suggested "jungle sounds" ( so-called by critics who at the time still couched their praise in racist vernacular) , Carter keeps his notes crisp, sharp as pressed pleat or a knife's edge, nuance and edges of melodic creation and destruction timed with the lights of the Big City, a blues full of the funk of the city. Funk Carter has, as in the fatback workout of the title track. Did I mention that he lays out and reconfigures ballads with a rare artistry?
This he does with the distanced eye of painter views a blank canvas and a palette of fresh paint. It's less important that he captures, after much labor and sweat and the semblance of agony, some questionable approximation of inner essences residing in the sweet notes that make up the melody than what he does to create new forms. There's a joyful aspect to Carter's playing that's perfectly contagious when he takes on the slower, more reflective tunes, and here one might guess that his soul is transformation, transcendence, recovering, a full swing of moods that he journeys through in order to regain the light of day. The playing on his exploration is marvelous, bubbling, never tentative.
Carter excels here because he isn't afraid to mess with the material; these slow pieces are less sacred objects than they are sources of inspiration. One thinks that Carter's hand will come out of the bell of his sax and pull your face into it. That's a coarse image, perhaps, but it's another way of saying that the tone and phrasing are in your face (in the most pleasant way, of course), and is the sprite and fulsome virtuosity that won't let you ignore the grace and occasional genius emerging from the horn. The brunt of this man's playing is full-bodied blues and bluster.