Friends and I were able to catch the first set of a two-night stand by the James Carter Quartet. The jazz at Founder’s Hall is always top-notch, but the James Carter Quartet decided to add some new notches at the top of scale with what was a killer six-song, ninety minute set.
James Carter, dressed like he was headed for a GQ fashion shoot, led his fellow musicians on stage carrying an armful of gleaming horns. Drummer Leonard King came on stage sporting an electric smile and dreadlocks that reached half way down his back. Pianist Gerard Gibbs and bassist Ralphe Armstrong, who both arrived with gleaming pates and dapper suits, took up positions at their respective instruments. Mr. Carter came to the microphone to practice what he called "hooked on phonics" and most other people would call a group introduction and a run down of the set. I didn’t write the songs down, but the opener was an Oscar Pettiford, two of the songs were original Carter compositions one of which was dedicated to his son. As soon as he was finished with the intro, Leonard King got down on his drum kit and James Carter picked up his soprano sax.
There is a reason why, when a person makes music with a saxophone that he is not called a saxophone operator, saxophone worker or a sax programmer. He is called a saxophone player because he engages in that greatest of human activities...play. He plays with the saxophon and he has fun. He exudes and communicates joy. James Carter did all of this with the soprano saxophone. He danced, sang through the reed and had a ball. Of course, there wasn’t a piano operator either, and James and Gerard Gibbs engaged in some back forth play that epitomized jazz. Ralphe Armstrong, who is big enough to make his bass look like a mere viol, also playfully coaxed inspired bass lines out of his instrument in what had become a musical romp. Leonard King never stopped smiling or playing and this was just the first song.
The set was interrupted by the shortest breaks between songs that I have ever witnessed. There are longer breaks between most songs on a CD. I felt and looking around the audience had the feeling that many others did to, that these guys weren’t willing to give up a second of play time even for a rest. There were no complaints because I wasn’t willing to give up a second of listening.
One thing that can be a little unusual when people play was the very well demonstrated ability to share the spotlight. Solos were passed around with generosity and none were wasted. Gerard Gibbs was brilliant on the piano and like James never confused virtuosic playing with having a good time, after all they are inseparable. Watching James and Gerard interact was as much fun as listening to them play.
While it seemed that all four musicians could have been the headliner, James Carter does things with the horns that he plays, which really steal the show. There are sounds that he gets out of a horn that a master would be hard pressed to simulate on a midi. Ranging from bings, baps, and hums, to sounds like an enraged bee hive Mr. Carter laced his playing with an ever entertaining array of sounds that added to and did not detract from the group’s hard boppin’ groove.
I always feel that bass players get the short end; they have their solos clapped over and other indignities. Ralphe Armstrong wasn’t having any of that. His bass was setup so you could hear every note and just when I was feeling he wasn’t getting left out he pulled out his bow for a solo that was definitely a bright spot among the evening’s very many high lights.
James Carter, did demonstrate some true child-like behavior, not childish mind you, child-like with his collection of horns. He brought them, they were shiny and he wanted to let everybody in the hall know not only how good they sound, but how well he knew how to play them.
A final brief description before I wind up. These guys were perfectly cast for the iconic "jazz quartet," they had that classic look in style from the 1950s to today and beyond. They made a simple raised platform a special place in time and space. They were able to convey with body language, facial expression and of course sound, why it is that humans can’t live without music. They demonstrated why jazz will live on and why you have to see it performed live. The audience definitely seemed younger when we left then when we got there.
Never miss an opportunity to see these four cats play. If you do, you will cry all the way home from the playground.