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JAZZ REVIEW : Carter's a Sax Master Still Finding Own Voice

June 21, 1995|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The past, the present and, just maybe, the future of jazz walked onstage at Catalina Bar & Grill Monday night carrying a bunch of saxophones and the heavy weight of expectation.

His name is James Carter, and he has been described almost universally as the next great saxophonist. It's an onerous burden that Carter has thus far carried with dignity, responsibility and enthusiasm. But for all his promise, sheer natural talent and dogged work ethic, it may be a bit too soon to predict how the 26-year-old Detroit native's career will unfold. The commercial interests of the jazz world can make demands that have little to do with artistic considerations.

At the moment, Carter is busily integrating large chunks of jazz history into his playing. His opening set Monday was a remarkable grab bag of styles, influences and techniques.

Among the saxophone icons who came to mind while hearing him play--some subliminally, some as the result of Carter's outright modeling--were Don Byas, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Gene Ammons, to name only a few. His saxophone methodology included everything from circular breathing and multi-phonics to slap tonguing, growls and high harmonics. At one point, in the middle of a solo, he responded instantly to a passing fire truck with a flurry of simulated sirens and sound effects reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Interspersed among the hyperactive frenzy of sound and rhythm were several brilliant segments of straight-ahead, harmonically complex blowing, underscored by a hard-driving sense of swing.

But there were not quite enough of such segments. Carter's mastery of his horns, on virtually every level, is astonishing. He has not yet, however, achieved a similar mastery of his improvisational focus. Too many styles, too many influences, too many techniques are distracting him from the establishment of a uniquely personal voice. But the potential is there, and--if Carter can avoid the temptation of being marketed as a flashy, jazz-tinged rhythm & blues act--he will, indeed, play an important role in the jazz future.

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