Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks
James Carter’s 2009 live date “Heaven on Earth” featured some of the most powerful jazz I’ve ever heard, offering rampant expressions made with monsters like Christian McBride and John Medeski. But as big and nasty as the quintet on that disc was, the James Carter Organ Trio offers that same kind of musical throw-weight in an easy, stripped-out package that lets Carter find new and different ways to blow minds (and reeds) straight to oblivion.
Carter and his crew threw us straight into the mixmaster with the opener “Chant in the Night.” The piece was written by Sidney Bechet, but I can’t believe the jazz icon ever envisioned his piece being eviscerated this way – and when I say “eviscerated,” I don’t mean that in a bad way.
As soon as Carter had established the melody, he promptly threw it away and started exploring the outer limits with impunity, taking a quick moment along the way to sub-reference Glenn Miller’s “Five O’Clock Whistle.” Keyboardist Gerard Gibbs’ first solo would have grabbed audiences immediately with its confident tone and bluesy muscle, but after the whirlwind tour of the ionosphere we’d just been given by Carter, Gibbs’ solo seemed like a pause for breath. Drummer Leonard King wasn’t pausing; he stayed busy as hell, bubbling under both solos with just enough direction to keep the foundation.
Carter finished the tune off with more musical acrobatics that ended in one long breathy note that had as much control as the massiveness he’d just performed. My first thought was, “That is NOT possible!” My second thought was, “And that was the FIRST TUNE!!!”
There are a lot of players who can hit the notes Carter played, but most of those players “honk” those notes rather than hold them, and only for a split-second; Carter not only hits those notes and holds them, but uses them to expand on the ideas he’d presented previously. He can also use his axes like percussion instruments, creating tapping sounds that could double as drum strikes.
And while the Organ Trio’s matrix is tailor-made for Carter to blow his face out on blues-soaked classics like Captain Jack McDuff’s “Walkin’ the Dog” and burning originals like King’s “Lettuce Toss Yo’ Salad,” Carter applies the same fearless attack to softer material like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” The former tune had Carter on soprano sax, playing lines that would have been handled by a clarinet back in the day, but Carter’s expansions replaced Benny Goodman with John Coltrane on steroids.
Carter also used the Trio to revisit his love for the Gypsy-jazz legend Django Reinhart. The band started “Nuages” in the same romantic way Carter had played it on his Django tribute disc “Chasin’ the Gypsy,” with Carter plumbing the deepest depths of his tenor sax. But then King took the meter into double time, changing the piece completely, and Carter took off like a rocket once again. Carter may be the only name on the band’s masthead, but Gibbs and King are not mere foils. This is a unit, with three strong solo voices and a mental telepathy most superheroes would envy.
They’re also so comfortable with each other, they’ll bust on each other in mid-song, break each other up, and still play the music perfectly. King mixed up the set list in the second set, playing the opening to “Mysterio” instead of “Walkin’,” prompting extreme hilarity from his partners and embarrassed laughter from himself; when King played the intro in the appropriate place, all three players were in hysterics for several minutes – and they never missed a note.
Gibbs’ keyboard work straddles that same blues-bar/gospel church line walked by Hammond B3 giants like McDuff and Jimmy Smith, particularly on “JC Off the Set” and the in-the-clear intro to “Walkin’.” For all his own power and invention, Gibbs plays it relatively straight, offering a differentiation from Carter’s extraterrestrial travels. King’s solo voice is twofold: It primarily manifests itself on his kit, and it was in all its glory on the rideouts to “Nuages” and the closer “Down By the Riverside.” For the Ellington spiritual, King sang in the same booming soulful voice he’d brought to “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” a Buddy Johnson piece popularized by Billie Holiday.
Towards the end of “Walkin’,” Carter looked at the mouthpiece of his alto sax, wearing an expression that clearly said, “Did I break it?” To my mind, he’s lucky his axe didn’t vaporized under the strain. And more than a few people left the Swyer Theatre holding their heads, amazed they hadn’t imploded along with Carter’s reed. There has to be some serious catharsis involved in playing that well and that wildly, and being a witness to it left everyone drained and staggering and extremely thankful they hadn’t stayed in on a school night.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
THE JAMES CARTER ORGAN TRIO SET LIST
Chant in the Night
I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone
Lettuce Toss Yo’ Salad
Little Hat’s Odyssey
Walking the Dog
JC on the Set
Down by the Riverside