Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Albert Brooks and Andrzej Pilarczyk
If you’re lucky, you learn something new every day. For instance, during a break in Regina Carter’s appearance at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, I learned that Carter’s exploration of her family heritage had included getting her DNA tested. The test results showed the Detroit native was 77 percent West African and 13 percent Finnish. “That tells you a lot about my family,” Carter laughed.
Even without the scientific angle, we’ve been able to walk with Carter through her family’s past for a few years now: Her 2006 release I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey was a tribute to her late mother and the songs of her era, while 2010’s Reverse Thread delved deeply into African folk music. Carter’s latest release Southern Comfort shows how the music on Reverse Thread came to America and was absorbed into Appalachia and – eventually – her grandmother’s home in Alabama. As interesting as that sounds, there were some doubts this project could top the thrilling sounds that came out of Thread. By the time Carter and her quintet were finished, those doubts were adamantly crushed.
As the lights went down and Egg impresario Peter Lesser left the stage, a scratchy recording of an old-time gospel singer started playing over the sound system. This was one of many field recordings from (among other places) the Lomax Family Collections that inspired Carter through this project’s development. As the singer faded out, guitarist Marvin Sewell and bassist Chris Lightcap eased into a warm meditation; Carter stepped onstage after the tone had been established and began bowing over their chording. Sewell and accordionist Will Holshauer went into a subtle vamp, and the band dove into Stefon Harris’ swirling arrangement of “Death Have Mercy/Breakaway.”
There was plenty of Cajun flavor in Carter’s fiddle, but it wasn’t hard to hear Jean-Luc Ponty in there, too. Carter wasn’t overplaying it, and the band was keeping it tight, but the groove within was definitely contagious. Carter’s husband/drummer Alvester Garnett tossed in a little marimba to spice up the dish a little more as Holshauer took off on his own solo, showing us this definitely wasn’t a polka party. Eventually the Cajun went away, replaced by an undeniable Hot Club vibe that Sewell nailed perfectly.
The aforementioned field recordings played a role throughout the two-set performance, both in body and spirit. When they weren’t prefacing Carter’s wicked takes on traditionals like the dancing “Shoo-Rye” and the hushed lullabye “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy”, Carter would describe what aspects of a recording had inspired her to bring a particular song into her project folder. The field recording for “I’m Going Home” (which closed the first set) preceded Sewell’s beautiful in-the-clear, 12-stringed intro to “Miner’s Child.” More often than not, all the musicians would listen to the recordings with eyes closed, gathering strength and inspiration from that sound and that time.
Mind you, this band didn’t need field recordings to get inspired, or be inspiring. Sewell and Lightcap are two of those musicians you see listed on other people’s recordings, usually making those dates just that bit better. Sewell and Holshauer acted as perfect foils for Carter when they weren’t dropping their own crowd-pleasing solos on us. Lightcap was as fat and funky as I’ve ever heard him, particularly during the intro to Carter’s funked-up take on Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’.” Garnett has the same kind of crackling vibe as Eddie Shaughnessy, although he sure doesn’t play like the legendary “Tonight Show” drummer: Shaughnessy was convinced he was the next Buddy Rich, while Garnett has so many more percussive tricks in his bag, we’d need a separate column to list them all. He knew just what every tune needed – from Carter’s faithful rendition of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind” to Holshauer’s bayou-drenched arrangement of Dennis McGee’s “Blues de Basile” – and delivered every time.
This was the first time I’d ever seen Carter in concert, and the reports I’d heard about the Reverse Thread tour made me wish I’d seen her last visit to Greater Nippertown. Nevertheless, my first experience was as much of a revelation as I expected. While both the music and her band mates inspired Carter to effortlessly jump to the next level, she eschewed the kind of physical histrionics Ponty and others have made their trademark. Job One for Carter is getting the music right; Job Two is making it even better – and if you can have big fun in the process, as she and her partners did on a soaring instrumental towards the end of the first set, so much the better. The untitled piece started out in the same vein as Carter’s new material, but then seemed to traverse the history of jazz as Garnett morphed the beat from Second Line to bebop to something totally awesome, and the rest of the group rode the wave like champions.
“That is not on the new CD,” Carter informed us after the wild applause died down.
“Better be on the next one,” someone called out.
More of Andrzej Pilarczyk’s photographs at Albany Jazz
Excerpt from Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union: “As Waylon Jennings once proclaimed in song, ‘Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?’ For her second song of her Saturday evening concert at The Egg, jazz violinist Regina Carter and her crack band uncorked a seriously bluesy, funked-up rendition of the old Hank Williams country roadhouse classic, ‘Honky Tonkin’,’ and you can bet your boots that Hank never done it that way. If you weren’t up-to-date on Carter’s new album, Southern Comfort (released earlier this month), you might have been scratching your head in bewilderment, but longtime fans know enough to expect the unexpected from her.”
REGINA CARTER SET LIST
Death Have Mercy/Breakaway
Honky Tonkin’ (Hank Williams)
Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy
I’m Going Home
Hickory Wind (Gram Parsons)
Blues de Basile
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