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Playing outside the lines

James Carter mixes genres and instruments for a signature style.

February 13, 2003|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

When James Carter prepares for any border crossing, he seldom travels light.

This time around, the jazz world's multi-woodwind demon has but three cases in ascending sizes -- soprano sax, tenor sax and bass clarinet -- strewn about his Culver City hotel room. He's just a couple of hours into town, and it's only a couple more before he kicks off a week of shows with his organ trio (Leonard King on drums and Gerald Gibbs on the funky Hammond B3) at the Jazz Bakery just down the way.

Carter had a heart-in-the-throat flight in from New York. "It was looking a little dicey," he says. But he seems not so worked up about that. Right now, he's worried about the biggest trunk.

"Gotta check out Big Licorice," he says, kneeling over the case, popping the hinges and pulling out a gleaming bass clarinet that he pieces together. He speaks excitedly about its pedigree. He inspects the pads, the wood, pointing out the spot where the last injury occurred.

"There was a crack that ran from there to there." He traces an invisible line. He was, he explains, dubious of the new ones. He'd played one whose sound felt off, felt strange in his hands.

"This one," he says, "well, it came out being an exception to the rule."

So is Carter.

Where many musicians choose one instrument to master, to make a signature, Carter figures that while he's at it, why not embrace many?

"I won't tell you how many I have," he says, still fingering, blowing out short riffs, scribbling a solo that goes from knotty to lacy to soft vapor.

He revels in turning assumptions on their heads. Known explicitly as a risk-taker, blowing through jazz genres as if they were tissue paper, Carter has had a broad, enthusiastic embrace. Not just the spinner-rack of woodwinds -- from soprano to baritone sax and everything in between -- he pulls from, but his stone-skimming from standards to the jutting lines of free jazz.

All of it is in his head at the ready: He's like the Rich Little of the woodwind world. Mention a player and he'll pop off a fragment of a solo for you in his style. John Carter, the late clarinetist, "deedle doo, deedle-dee dee"; Eddie Harris, "blamp, blamp, blamp."

Accordingly, Carter has produced a body of work that makes listeners realize how unfamiliar with the range of saxophone tones we are. Not just their colors but also their personalities.

His last album, "Chasin' the Gypsy" (2000), was a nod in substance and style to "hot jazz" guitarist Django Reinhardt. Around the same time, Carter issued an all-electric album, "Layin' in the Cut," that, he was sure, was going to alienate his straight-ahead following. This organ trio? A nod to his work with Lester Bowie, and to the great soul-funk trios of the late '50s and early '60s.

Traveling from horn to horn and from curiosity to whim, says Carter, are inseparable. "I tie it all into one thing, my teacher, Donald Washington."

It was Washington, says Carter, who entered the wings, just as Carter, then 12, was ready to throw in the towel.

Washington's basement music room in Detroit -- the stacks of LPs, a drum kit, piano, a range of woodwinds, brass -- threw open a door. "Seeing it all on the stand, ready to be played. It was just a different aura. I saw music differently." It was about hearing and thinking about all kinds of music as "all under one roof."

He hasn't shaken it off yet.

"No one in my neighborhood really understood the music that I was into." Working with Washington on long Saturday afternoons was just as important as hearing him in genre-crossing ensembles that played around the Detroit area. "I got a taste of how jazz and the saxophone worked together ... and how jazz saved the saxophone."

There are those who say that Carter is saving jazz. Or at the very least is offering a challenging salvo, shocking it into a different place.

Much of that has to do with his ear and the colors and textures in instruments, and what each tone brings to the palette -- not to mention the energy.

He doesn't worry about borders while in the moment, listening for the connections. "That's fine for jazz education," Carter says, "but for me it has to be organic." As he takes the stand Tuesday at the Bakery, he exemplifies that, placing the emphasis, as always, on the extemporaneous.

King and Gibbs charge forward into open space. Carter gives them lots of room. After a while, as if jumping onto a moving train, he lunges forward, all earthy snorts and honks. Many times, mid-musical thought, he trades tenor for soprano or back again.

Turning a winter weeknight into a sweaty, summer Saturday evening, Carter leans into his solo, and it's clear that it's not so much who or what gets charmed by the saxophone as what gets charmed out of it. And there's nothing wrong with turning that assumption on its head either.


James Carter's Organ Trio

Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., L.A.

When: Today-Sunday, 8 and 9:30 p.m.

Cost: $25

Info: (310) 271-9039

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