James Carter has the potential for jazz greatness | EW.com

Music

James Carter has the potential for jazz greatness

Detroit saxophonist shines in the new release ''Conversin' With the Elders''

”I keep my ears open,” horn man James Carter explains by way of offering insights into the source of his inspiration. ”I don’t just pay attention to saxophonists — I think that’s kind of narrow. It’s a natural process where I’ll [listen to all kinds of music], weed out what I don’t really need, pick up on particular elements, and play with them until I refine them. So my choices are infinite.”

As is James Carter’s potential. Lithe and handsome, with a swagger to his step, Carter possesses the look and sound of a thoroughbred — recalling a time when giants walked the earth and America danced to jazz. With the release of Conversin’ With the Elders, and a role in Robert Altman’s late summer film, Kansas City, the 27-year-old Detroit native gives every indication that he’s got the talent to successfully intermingle the past, present, and future of American saxophone.

The question is, does he have the temperament to match? Only time will tell, but master musicians Julius Hemphill, Wynton Marsalis, and Sonny Rollins have already given Carter the nod. Hearing him invest a melody with his special blend of burnished machismo and lyric tenderness puts one in mind of tenor champions thrice his age…until, suddenly, one of Carter’s bluesy, blossoming phrases explodes into an unruly torrent of overtones, as if Jimi Hendrix had just hurtled through the ionosphere in search of one keening note, only to land neatly on the beat.

”I grew up within a very diverse musical environment,” Carter explains. ”My mom played violin and piano during her days in school, and my older brother plays guitar. So of course, besides Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix was the cat. And somehow it became internalized. As I developed my technical aptitude, I was able to analyze things I’d hear in [Hendrix’s] feedback and realize that these things were feasible horn-wise as well.”

It’s precisely this balance of contemporary and traditional elements that makes Conversin’ With the Elders — which features the work of jazz luminaries Harry ”Sweets” Edison, Buddy Tate, and Lester Bowie, among others — such a gratifying recital.

”It was very important that we document this music, that we bridge the generation gap, for want of a better term. I’m not saying that [these players] are holy relics,” Carter insists. ”It’s a matter of mutual respect. They’re all elders to me — and they’ve always been contemporary artists.”