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JAZZ REVIEW

Saxophonist Carter's Set Long on Virtuosity

August 08, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's no denying the sheer musical ability of saxophonist James Carter, who opened a six-night run at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night. Performing on four different instruments--clarinet and soprano, alto and tenor saxophones--Carter's technical skills were astounding. In the first number alone, a soprano saxophone romp through Don Byas' "1944 Stomp," he wrenched every sound imaginable out of the instrument. He was no less impressive on his other horns, including a powerful clarinet excursion through the blues on Buddy Tate's "Blue Creek." And in a few spots, Carter, revealing a small but promising sign of growing artistic maturity, occasionally countered his blazing, often aggressive displays with brief moments of quiet lyricism.

Talented as he is, however, he carries a heavy burden of potential, one that has been exacerbated by the persistent expectation that he will emerge as one of the saxophone giants of the next century. But Carter still has some work to do before he can take his music up to the level of creativity that his talent seems to promise.

His playing in the opening set, for example, was dominated far more by mechanical ability than by creative imagination.

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Carter also seems far too willing to use his virtuosity to play to the crowd. In his clarinet solo on "Blue Creek," for example, he used a circular breathing method to hold a single note through several choruses of the tune, arousing shouts of encouragement from his enthusiastic listeners, but diminishing an otherwise effective improvisation. The technique--familiar to many musicians--is a guaranteed reaction-getter, but seems more suitable for a performance by Kenny G than by Carter.

Like Jimi Hendrix, Carter runs the risk of allowing his mastery of instrumental trickery to overshadow richer aspects of his music.

Among the faculties a player requires to emerge as an important jazz influence, there are three that stand out. The first is a firm understanding and connection with the history of the art--elements that are solidly present in Carter's work. The second is a uniquely personal voice, which already is rapidly beginning to take shape.

The third is a compelling message--a take on jazz that brings new light, perspective and feeling. And it is here that Carter has not yet found his focus, still wavering between his virtuosity and a fascination with his historical antecedents. It remains to be seen whether or not he will find that focus, but if he does, he has the capacity to become one of the significant jazz artists of his generation.

* James Carter Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $14 cover tonight and Sunday, $16 cover Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum. Carter performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.

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