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Riding the hydra


One thing James Carter cannot be accused of is traveling light. When he visits Penfield High School for two concerts this weekend, he'll be bringing along four or five of his saxophones.

            In fact, hearing him on soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophone, not to mention sopranino and the rare F-mezzo, you might think he's playing one instrument with seven heads.

            "That's an interesting way to look at it," says Carter. "I guess I think of the whole woodwind family that way."

            Indeed, Carter plays --- seriously plays --- the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon; the list goes on. He also reconditions and repairs them, not out of financial need, but out of reverence for the instruments.

            Carter's musical vocabulary knows no limits. It can be as eloquent as a love poem or turbulent as the Tower of Babel, evoking Maceo Parker-style funk or late-Coltrane squeaks and growls. Over the past decade, he has demonstrated this on a half-dozen albums and by his work as a sideman on CDs by performers like singer Karrin Allyson and his cousin, violinist Regina Carter.

            When Carter arrives at Penfield, he'll be added to the list of jazz greats --- including Clark Terry, Max Roach, Kenny Burrell, and Slide Hampton --- who have been featured there over the last 33 years. Music Department Chair Jim Doser is busy preparing his students for their guest, who will play with a variety of ensembles.

            "The first thing I played them was 'In Carterian Fashion,'" Doser says. "You should have seen their faces. They said they liked the more avant-garde stuff best."

            On "In Carterian Fashion," Carter's solos begin in a traditional melodic manner but move quickly into stratospheric improvisation.

            "My solos at any particular time can take any angle," Carter says. "It depends upon a lot of variables: whatever the tone model is, or the song, or the last statement the previous soloist put down. Or you can totally divorce yourself from the proceedings and go at it from that angle. It depends on what an individual wants to say, just like in talk-show situations. Not everybody's blasting on the cat that cheated."

            Carter feels fortunate to have been brought up under the premise that "music is music and it's just gone through a different metamorphosis over the years." He counts family members among his earliest influences. One of his brothers played in a variety of soul and funk bands. And, as he was growing up, he began to notice something else around the house.

            "I heard the sax in things my mother used to listen to," Carter says. "Most of them were vocal things that had a saxophone picking up the slack after the verse was sung --- Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Etta Jones and Houston Person --- that pretty much flipped me over."

            Carter also found himself attracted by the visual appeal of the saxophone on album covers.

            "I don't think if I was growing up today I'd get the same inspiration out of a CD cover," he says. "There's a whole lot that kids are really being deprived of, like the folded out poster. Imagine the [Isaac Hayes] Black Moses poster folded up in a CD cover!"

            But it was a fortuitous event that first put a sax into Carter's hands. His family had taken a boarder, saxophonist Charles Green (who later played with War), into its Detroit home. When his curiosity got the best of him, Carter waited for Green to leave the house, opened the case, and blew his first notes on the saxophone. He got into trouble, but the die was cast.

            "I took it out of the case, and it formed a chrysalis for me: I got all the senses stimulated. I heard, saw, and felt the instrument."

            Green helped him pick out his first sax, and it wasn't long before Carter was using his brother's 4-track tape recorder to create his own mock wind quartets. He used a similar technique --- playing baritone, tenor, and soprano saxes --- on "Fisco Follies," one of the hottest tracks on In Carterian Fashion.

            "That had to happen, because when I had a trumpet and alto player play along with me it didn't have the same bite," Carter says. "They couldn't make the octave and interval jumps along with me."

            That's hardly surprising; few can rival Carter's superhuman technique. He can even defy the logic of the instrument, playing morethan one note at a time.

            "A lot of that comes from being a frustrated guitar player," he says. "I never bothered to take up guitar, but there are [stylistic] things I like about all instruments and I choose to incorporate them. Being able to play more than one note, not just as a gimmick, but to actively apply it where it has the right tone, the right timbre, and the right temperament, is something I choose to employ."

            Sometimes his ability to take a solo out and bring it back can collide with the vision of a bandleader. In 1985, while still a teenager, he got a call from Wynton Marsalis's manager. Marsalis's brother Branford had just left Marsalis's band to play saxophone for Sting. Marsalis, who was impressed with Carter when he visited Carter's Detroit high school, wanted him for a replacement.

            Carter's time with Marsalis was productive, but his solos didn't always fit Marsalis's Ellingtonian vision.

            "I didn't want to hang that long either, because I had noticed this cat's getting stuck into a rut and I just didn't want it to be my only bag, to be known as just a sideman in the Lincoln Center thing," Carter says. "The green might have been long, but I was at a point where I had good green going and I didn't want to sacrifice that either."

            Since then he's explored his own vision in a diverse series of albums, including Conversin' With the Elders, The Real Quiet Storm, Chasin' the Gypsy, and In Carterian Fashion.

            The title tune from that album will be one of eight compositions explored in new arrangements commissioned by Penfield High School from Eastman School of Music band leader Dave Rivello, Penfield instructor Rod Blumenau, arranger Dave Springfield, and two Eastman grad students, Mike Hay and Brian Shaw.

            Carter is looking forward to working with the students. He knows from personal experience that it can be an uphill battle to keep the music vital.

            "There was a point when I was getting ready to give up and think that jazz was an antiquated musical art form with no real outlet for it to be nurtured in the school system," he says. "The answer came with my private teacher and musical father, Donald Washington. He got me on the right track and was able to cultivate my interest in the music. From there I was able to go out into the world and have certain people who were open and honest about my playing at that time, opening up not only their minds and their hearts, but also their homes and their musical knowledge and musical forms."

James Carter performs at Penfield High School's 33rd Annual Jazz Fundraiser Concerts on Friday and Saturday, February 7 and 8, in the Penfield High School Auditorium, 25 High School Drive, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, $6 for students, and can be purchased at Muzet, Inc., American Music, the Bop Shop, and the Penfield High Music Office. Info: 249-6700.