The engagement at Baker’s in Detroit reunited Carter with other Motor City musicians like the legendary Motown drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen, and was something of a homecoming for the saxophonist. "It always is," Carter says of appearances in his native city. "Detroit is my home, and the musicians I worked with are ones that I enjoy playing with; it’s as simple as that."
Both the city and the club are special places for him. "Basically, Detroit is ground zero for me," he says, "[It’s] where I was born and raised, the youngest of a family of five. I played there over the years and would hear about Baker's Keyboard Lounge and everybody who would come there. Baker's is just a shining beacon, you know."
The eight tracks that comprise the new album offer a pretty good microcosm of Carter’s holistic approach to jazz. Sometimes cuts are funky, emphasizing the groove; other cuts are free-form workouts. There’s even a witty version of the standard "I Can’t Get Started," highlighted by Franz Jackson’s hilarious vocal, as much as by the lyrical playing of Carter and the other saxes. The one thing constant throughout the set is the sense of joy going into the playing. "It was like a three-day clambake," he says of the gig. "We were just having fun, I mean, that’s how it should be taken. Anybody else that wants anything, you know, deeper [we’re] musicians getting together and having a good time, having a ritual, a rite of passage."
Whatever the meaning (or lack thereof), it’s an impressive gathering of musicians. Carter explains that "David Murray is someone who’s playing I admire and that I’ve been listening to for years, as is Johnny Griffin." Murray in particular seems an inspired musical partner for James Carter, both players combining a strong sense of the avant-garde alongside more traditional jazz elements in their playing so seamlessly that neither man can be easily pigeon-holed as either an ‘outside’ or an ‘inside’ player. "I think both David and I are more interested in playing our music than worrying about genres or particular labels," Carter opines. "I think all the energy that gets spent on that could be put into the music."
None of which should be taken to mean that Carter is unconcerned about the state of jazz and the way it is perceived. "Some people like to talk about jazz, but when you ask them who they listen to, they come up with these names that don’t really have anything to do with it. At best, they might reach back to Grover Washington, you know, or someone like that. If they mention someone like Louis Armstrong, he’s one of the honorary musicians, but then if you ask them what’s in their collections, like the Hot Fives you know what I’m saying?"
James Carter grew up not only in Detroit but also, in another sense, on record in front of the world. Live at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, his latest release, finds the mature man and artist on stage in the home of his youth. As for the future? "Stay tuned," he says, "I’m going to keep making better and better music."