Album Remarks & Appraisals:
James Carter is back in town. One of the most admired saxophonists of his generation makes his debut with Present Tense, an album of uncompromising, swinging jazz. While it's music that has its roots in the jazz tradition, it's also forward looking. How else could it be, with players like Victor Lewis on drums, D. D. Jackson on piano and Dwight Adams on trumpet? asks Carter. The all-star cast, which also has James Genus on bass, includes guest appearances by Rodney Jones on guitar and Eli Fountain on percussion. The album is produced by Michael Cuscuna, who sensed a challenge to capture the sheer range of Carter's enormous talent and his mastery of jazz idiom, which he felt had not really been adequately represented on earlier albums.
"Multi-reedist James Carter has been steadily chugging along as a master of many instruments and styles since his auspicious recording debut in the early '90s, often operating under the radar while maintaining a consistent commitment to quality performances.
With the release of Present Tense, Carter lets us know exactly where he's at with a well-paced collection of lyrical and concise statements, harvesting a deep sense of swing and letting his curious imagination roam free with the assistance of a killer band.
The tunes, most of which are in the 4 to 7-minute range, offer a concentrated and disciplined approach. "Rapid Shave" is an old-fashioned swinger taken at a bright tempo, with Carter's blazing baritone sax edged by pianist D.D. Jackson's pleasingly percussive and heavy-handed playing, displaying the influence of Don Pullen's abstract yet blues-based ideas. The similarly up-tempo bop of Gigi Gryce's "Hymn of the Orient" showcases a band that is totally on point with the angular arrangement, wasting no time for frills as they hit it, then quit it with the flourish of a sweet rubato coda.
Highlights of the set include two of the leader's features on bass clarinet. "Bro. Dolphy" expresses Carter's admiration for Eric Dolphy's singular influence on the instrument in question. The tightly-wound bop head evolves into an elegant ballad, before getting loose with an impressionistic spaciousness that references Dolphy's classic Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964). And like Dolphy, Carter's bass clarinet sound is velvety smooth, emotionally expressive and technically agile.
The same goes for "Shadowy Sands," the Jimmy Jones-composed tune that was a rare bass clarinet feature for Ellingtonian star Harry Carney back in the day. An alternating groove cushions Carter's fluid phrasing of the melody line, expertly shadowed by Dwight Adams' sublime trumpet sound, as it segues from a languid Latin beat to a tight shuffle.
The album boasts a few choice cuts on the mellow tip as well, with a version of Django Reinhardt's "Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure" that finds Carter offering some romance on the soprano, backed by Jackson's super-classy keys. The Spanish bolero-style beat of "Sussa Nita" is underscored by the twinkling harmonics of guest guitarist Rodney Jones, whose solo gives props to the street sophistication of players like Kenny Burrell and Melvin Sparks, while percussionist Eli Fountain adds a welcome touch of chiming colors. And the album-closer "Tenderly" is like a flawless piece of a film noir soundtrack, evoking a late-night taxi ride uptown, or some humid summertime porch reverie.
Carter's eclectic choices continue on a hip-hop-inflected "Song of Delilah," with some fun simultaneous soloing between darting sax and trumpet; and a welcome revival of the little-known "Dodo's Bounce," a bebop-era chestnut from the underrated pianist Dodo Marmarosa that showcases Carter's flute, Adams' muted tone and the tasty brushes of drummer Victor Lewis.
This solid, straight-ahead outing sounds both "old-timey" (in the best sense), with deep roots in blues and swing; and exploratory, never sacrificing Carter's personal approach, while maintaining his place in the jazz tradition." -AllAboutJazz
"James Carter may not yet be forty, but he possesses a degree of instrumental mastery which could easily be a lifetime's work. At different stages of this record, the versatile multi-instrumentalist plays tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones as well as flute and bass clarinet, all with equal power and precision.
This diverse approach to instrumental voicing is reflected in the range of material selected for Present Tense, Carter's first outing as a leader since 2005. From pacey post-bop inflections to silky Latin sensibilities and delicately nuanced ballad playing, it's all here. Producer Michael Cuscuna was keen to capture Carter's varied musical palette on a single disc, and by all evidence has done a fine job.
"Song of Delilah," an old favourite of Clifford Brown and Sonny Rollins, receives a modern hip-hop treatment from drummer Victor Lewis and bassist James Genus, and features Carter dueling with himself on two overdubbed tenor sax tracks. "Hymn of the Orient" is the record's unexpected gem, spotlighting Carter's baritone expertise and a series of lively interchanges with Lewis and Dwight Adams on trumpet. In terms of the leader's own writing, "Bro. Dolphy" is a composition of shifting moods and movements that climaxes with a furious face-off between trumpet and bass clarinet.
Carter has succeeded in assimilating the old school and simultaneously applying a contemporary personal touch to this great set of aptly chosen tunes. Trademark expressive, colorful solos are present for all to enjoy but despite occasional flamboyance, nothing ever sounds out of place: his improvisation is characterized by a wonderful coherence of thought, with ideas and motifs flowing effortlessly together in a way so many sax showmen struggle to grasp.
Present Tense may not go down in jazz history as a landmark recording, but it is an excellent CD which has done pleasing justice to the multi-dimensional talents of this modern master. James Carter's music is relentlessly fresh and enticing---remember the name." -AllAboutJazz
Rolling Stone (p.95) - 4 stars out of 5 -- ""It's presidential Carter: soulfulness and technique in perfect balance."
Down Beat (p.69) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "Carter is reserved yet passionate on soprano....Solo time is spread around, with an interestingly arcane set list."
JazzTimes (p.96) - "[Carter] plays multiple horns, but his improvising gains force at the high- and low-register extremes, on flute, baritone sax and bass clarinet."
Personnel: James Carter (flute, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone); Rodney Jones (guitar); Dwight Adams (trumpet, flugelhorn); D.D. Jackson (piano); James Genus (bass guitar); Victor Lewis (drums); Eli Fountain (congas, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Jim Anderson .
Recording information: Avtar Studios, New York, NY (09/21/2007-09/23/2007).
Photographer: Jimmy Katz.
Reed virtuoso James Carter turns in one of his most focused, accomplished albums with 2008's PRESENT TENSE. Although Carter is well known for his eclecticism and willingness to range left of center (he is as comfortable blowing free as in more straitlaced jazz contexts), PRESENT TENSE finds him working in an idiom that recalls the golden era of 1960s post-bop. Carter lets his dexterity soar on bass clarinet, flute, and soprano, tenor, and baritone sax, while yielding plenty of space to a crack line-up that includes drummer Victor Lewis, pianist D.D. Jackson, and trumpeter Dwight Adams, among others. This mixture of swing, bop, Latin, and ballads, along with its moments of experimentation, makes PRESENT TENSE an accessible, artfully crafted effort.
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