Regina Carter grew up playing classical music: first piano, then violin, and even a bit of oboe. But while studying at New England Conservatory, she realized she had the jazz bug, so she moved back to her home state of Michigan and delved into a new line of study. This has led to a stellar career as one of the most important female jazz violinists ever. And her sound is unique, as influenced by Yehudi Menuhin as it is by Jean-Luc Ponty.
Carter was born in Detroit in 1966. By the time she was 21, she was a member of the all-female jazz-pop quintet, Straight Ahead. In 1991 she moved to New York to try to establish herself in the music scene, which she did by backing visiting artists from a wide variety of genres, from Max Roach to Dolly Parton. No surprise, then, that a seamless blend of styles is a hallmark of her sound.
In 1995 Carter made her self-titled debut solo album, and soon after that landed a tour with Wynton Marsalis. At that time, she was also a member of the New York String Trio. Her reputation grew as a player with precise technique, clear tone, and great intelligence. These traits, matched with a courageous approach to improvisation, helped her win a MacArthur Fellow “genius” grant in 2006.
Having been trained in the Suzuki violin method as a child, Carter still believes it is an effective way to make music-making accessible to kids. Teaching is one of her passions, so she gives many master classes. It will be interesting to hear her influence in the coming generations of jazz musicians.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Regina Carter.
- Track: “Daydreamin’ on the Niger”
Album: Something for Grace
Carter had been with Atlantic Records for ten years, since her time with Straight Ahead, when she made Something for Grace, her second solo album. The “Grace” mentioned in the title is her mother.
What you’ll notice immediately in “Daydreamin’ on the Niger,” a composition by Carter and bassist Reggie Washington, is the influence of the jazz fusion sound. There are also touches of Afropop, synth pop, and funk. But the main feature is Carter’s dense, classically-trained tone.
- Track: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”
Album: Rhythms of the Heart
Rhythms of the Heart was Carter’s first release with Verve, where she was promised more creative autonomy than she’d had at Atlantic Records. The album is marked by outstanding sound production, particularly in the way producer Richard Seidel and engineer James Nichols capture the depth and complexity of the violin sound.
“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was written in 1955 by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf and popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. For all her openness to more modern styles and techniques, Carter has a deep love of classic swing, and she understands how to make her violin practically sing the lyrics. The delicate piano accompaniment is by Kenny Barron.
- Track: “Don’t Get Sassy”
Album: Motor City Moments
Carter made Motor City Moments as a love letter to her hometown, choosing tunes by fellow musicians who were either born in the Detroit area or made it their home, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and saxophonist Lucky Thompson.
As an appropriate prelude to a collection that melds jazz and R&B, Carter opens with Thad Jones’ bluesy romp “Don’t Get Sassy.” The charm of her phrasing brings to mind the musical personality of violinist Stéphane Grappelli. (I wrote about him for Copper in Issue 89.)
- Track: “Fragile”
Freefall is a collaboration by Carter with the wonderful pianist Kenny Barron. The offhandedness of his style, sometimes almost tripping over the keys, is the ideal foil to her precise technique. They’re one of those duos who bring out the best in each other.
Perhaps the most surprising choice of tunes here is the song “Fragile” by Sting. The emotional tone of Carter’s violin while she improvises evokes the bowing and vibrato techniques of Isaac Stern or Itzhak Perlman more than any jazz violinist.
- Track: “Little Brown Jug”
Album: I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey
Carter’s mother passed away in 2005, and this album was her response, interpretations of a dozen songs that her mom particularly loved.
“Little Brown Jug” is one of several nods to trombonist and big band leader Glenn Miller, apparently a favorite of Carter’s mother. As if emphasizing her intention to take this silly 19th-century pop tune seriously, Carter brazenly starts her arrangement with figures that sound like a Bach solo violin partita.
- Track: “N’Teri”
Album: Reverse Thread
Label: E1 Entertainment
On Reverse Thread, Carter traces her biological and musical heritage back to Africa, exploring that continent through folk songs, contemporary African pieces, and her own compositions.
Habib Koité is a guitarist and singer-songwriter from Mali. He recorded his song “N’Teri” (“My Friend”) in 2007 with his band, Afriki. In her version, Carter makes a powerful rhythmic and textural impact by interlacing her violin pizzicato with the African kora, played by one of the masters of that instrument, Yacouba Sissoko.
- Track: “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy”
Album: Southern Comfort
Displaying yet another of her many musical interests, Carter made Southern Comfort, an album of traditional country and bluegrass tunes. As usual, she surrounds herself with great musicians, including guitarist Adam Rogers and accordionist Will Holshouser.
The track list combines several Southern genres, representing a variety of cultures, from Hank Williams singles to African American folk songs. Among the latter group is “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy.” Carter’s playing is characterized by artful placement of mixed modes and blue notes. It may be a bit brainy for some people; hearing it is like watching an expert mosaic artist create a simple image out of thousands of shards of gemstone.
- Track: “Crying in the Chapel”
Album: Ella: Accentuate the Positive
The only thing the tunes on Ella: Accentuate the Positive have in common is that the great Ella Fitzgerald recorded and performed them. But the joy of this collection is in its surprises and incongruities.
Who would ever expect to find the Elvis Presley hit “Crying in the Chapel” on a jazz album? Sure, it has lost all its country swing and bears no trace of the King’s imprint. Instead, Carter turns the song in to a fascinating jazz fusion voyage.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brianmcmillen.