Rethinking James Carter

My James Carter Experience

I’ll admit it, I’ve never been a huge fan of James Carter. I’ve always felt his tone was rather harsh and his playing style was somewhat unconvincing at times. By this I mean he played every other saxophone exactly as he plays his tenor. Soprano, Alto, Baritone, and Bass are all subject to the Carter experience. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having a unique tone and style. After all isn’t that what we all strive to have? But I feel he leaves a lot of the nuances of the particular horns behind when he applies his brand of playing to them.  Carter seems to dominate any horn you put in his hands.

Don’t agree? There is something that you can hear and feel when you hear a musician who has worked out every corner in his sound on his chosen horn. That horn for Carter is clearly his tenor. He seem to know how to coax out every conceivable tone the horn can make both pretty and ugly. Yes, I said ugly. Have you heard him scream through the horn? It’s abrasive and rough on the ears. When he applies this coaxing to the other horns in the family that I feel like he’s leaving a lot of tonal  possibilities on the table.

Now with that out of the way I have to say that I still believe the things I’ve said above but also that the man is a genius. The very things that I dislike about him are some of the things I have learned to like in him. He is a musician who is not afraid to reach beyond the current conventions and play anything in anyway.Why not play Satin Doll while slap tonguing every note on bass saxophone? How about a squeaking  screaming, growling rendition of My Funny Valentine?  His passion and volatility are worn on his shoulder as he plays and its infectious.

I would dare someone to present to me a living player who’s complete disregard for the modern playing conventions has changed the way tenor players and other saxophone players in general have seen their horns. Sure, many of his “advanced” have been used in rock and roll for ages but bringing them back to jazz is his legacy. Youtube is a wash with his performances and finding one to suit your needs is easy. Perhaps his online presence is his next greatest legacy.

In all I have come to appreciate his musicianship, technique, and playing outside of expectations. I am still unconvinced of his baritone and bass tone. Just not my cup of tea.  Check out this Master Class.