Jazz in the modern cerebral mode, with its polyrhythmic complexity, cultural eclecticism, and controlled virtuosity, is a thing to behold and appreciate. But I ask you, in all of this, where is the ecstatic? Where's the blues shout, the cry of joy or pain, the danger, the rolling-in-the aisles fervor, the story-telling, the speed-with-purpose, the Armstrong, Parker, or later Coltrane?
Well, James Carter is playing it. At Cafe Stritch's Rahsaanathon last night, he joined Steve Turre fronting a mostly local house band for their third night performing the Kirk songbook, in honor of what would have been Rahsaan's 80th birthday. Cafe Stritch is named after one of Kirk's custom-made saxophones, refurbished and played in the photo below by Mr. Carter himself (photo credit: LMK).
The band was pretty good, but as a group really didn't get into the spirit until the second half. Carter was in the spirit the moment his lips met his shiny metal mouthpiece. Playing full-tilt on every note of every solo, grooving and grinning through everyone else's, he came to play, and to please. To my ear, he has the most remarkably rich tenor sound since Sonny Rollins, with the possible exception of the late noise-master David S. Ware. His solos often start out by stating the melody in the gutbucket, jump-blues mode, but pretty soon he opens up his big bag of tricks: fast-paced modal runs (of course), fat vibrato, rumbling growls, squawks, quacks, percussive pops (how?), mile-high squeals and overblowing, polytones and overtones, and clever quotes on the fly from familiar melodies, sometimes three different tunes in a single phrase.
In other words, he is a show-off. I sensed that by night 3 the rest of the band, including the ostensible leader Mr. Turre, were exhausted by it all, if not quite resentful. Sitting in the front row of the cramped club, so close to Carter that I quite literally could have nabbed the drink at his feet, I had a different reaction. As a onetime mediocre high-school jazz-band tenor player, I know enough to know that this is something rare and wonderful... perhaps how I would feel playing doubles with Roger Federer. But mostly my reaction was... YES! JAZZ LIVES!