Regina Carter brings world music to jazz

by Calvin Wilson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch and stltoday.com

October 29, 2010

Jazz violinist Regina Carter has long been fascinated with sounds from other lands. That led to her latest album, “Reverse Thread,” which focuses on the folkloric music of Africa.

“It was a long journey,” says Carter, who will bring her band, also called Reverse Thread, to Jazz at the Bistro for a four-night engagement starting Wednesday. “We played the music for a year before we recorded it.”

Staying true to the essence of the music was a priority, Carter says.

“Some of the melodies sound so simple, but the difficult thing is to keep them simple, to take this beautiful music and make it ours, but not decorate it too much,” she says.

At the Bistro, Carter will be accompanied by Yacouba Sissoko on kora, Will Holhouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass and Alvester Garnett on drums.

Of the 12 tunes on “Reverse Thread,” perhaps the best known is “Kothbiro,” which was heard in the film “The Constant Gardener.” Carter co-wrote “Day Dream on the Niger,” which originally appeared on her 1997 album “Something for Grace.”

One of the most critically acclaimed artists in jazz, Carter performed in several bands, including the all-female pop-jazz quintet Straight Ahead and the String Trio of New York, before striking out on her own. In 2006, she won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant.

It’s true that the honor comes as a surprise to its recipients, Carter says.

“I had no clue about the whole thing,” she says. “They can spend years checking you out, and you don’t know.”

Carter’s impressive discography includes the albums “Rhythms of the Heart” (1999), “Motor City Moments” (2000), “Paganini: After a Dream” (2003) and “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey” (2006). And she soloed memorably on the album “Traveling Miles” (1999), singer Cassandra Wilson’s tribute to Miles Davis.

In his book, “Jazz Encyclopedia,” Richard Cook writes that Carter “plays with real dash and ingenuity on an instrument which has never found much of a footing in post-bop jazz.” And, indeed, Carter is well aware that some jazz fans view the violin with skepticism, despite its brilliance in the hands of such legendary figures as Stuff Smith and Stephane Grappelli.

“People still say, ‘Oh, I never knew there was such a thing as jazz violin,'” Carter says. “Or people just have it in their minds that it’s not a jazz instrument, so they won’t even give it a chance.”

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