Regina Carter hopes her latest CD, Motor City Moments, will open some eyes — and minds.
Specifically, she wants certain people to understand why she incorporates so many different musical styles into her jazz — why you’ll find Thad Jones and Milt Jackson compositions right beside Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye tunes, all peppered with African and Brazilian percussion.
“All that music is coming out of Detroit,” the violinist says. “I didn’t want it to be a one-sided record. People have accused me of musically being all over the map — but I can’t help it. Anybody growing up in a city like Detroit is gonna have all those influences.
“A lot of people migrated to Detroit because of the automotive industry and Motown Records, so there was a ton of different kinds of music and cultural events going on all the time, right there in the city,” she explains. “I was privy to hear it. So, with this record, I got to really showcase a small part of the city.”
The stars she’s recorded with are as startlingly diverse as the songs she plays — the list includes Wynton Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton. And Motor City Moments (Verve, 2000) features guest players like Detroit-native Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Lewis Nash on drums, James Carter on bass clarinet, Russell Malone on guitar, and Barry Harris on piano, as well as members of her regular touring band — drummer Alvester Garnett, percussionist Mayra Casales and pianist “Vana” Gierig.
“I can’t put myself in just one category, so I feel fortunate enough to be able to do the kind of records that I do, incorporating a lot of styles on one record. I just finished recording a duo record with Kenny Barron, too, a special project that we just wanted to do,” she reveals.
A violinist since age 4, Carter won top awards in Downbeat magazine’s 1997 critics’ poll, and her previous CD, Rhythms of the Heart (Verve, 1998) topped the Gavin contemporary-jazz charts.
Early on, she received good training in Detroit public schools. “I was fortunate enough to have teachers that really cared. And my mother was one to really push for us to do a lot of after-school activities,” she says. “She’s a retired schoolteacher, so she had my brother and I involved in a lot of different things. And most of the schools I was in had some kind of music program, orchestra or choir, or some kind of band of different miscellaneous instruments. So I was always around music. And violin is what I’ve done my entire life. I thought I was going to be a classical musician, play in an orchestra and solo around an orchestra.”
No jazz was played in the Carter household. Her parents weren’t fans of the genre, and her older brother listened mostly to Motown records. It took a French violinist named Stephane Grappelli to turn her on to jazz. Carter was 16.
“A friend of mine, a vocalist named Carla Cook, took me there and said, ‘You have got to check this guy out.’ And the concert just blew me away. Partly because of the freedom I knew he had in the music — but also just because I could tell he was having such a good time. And I wanted to have that experience every time I played.”
After that, Carter began going to see violinist Noel Pointer perform around Detroit. “Outside of that, I had no idea who Miles Davis was, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Coltrane, none of those people,” says the violinist. “And when I started to hear some of that music, a lot of it was too intense for my ears. I said, ‘Man, if this is jazz, I don’t know that I want to really do this.’ And that’s how I know now when people say, ‘Oh, I hate jazz,’ then I understand that they’ve had a bad experience, or they’ve had an experience where they didn’t understand what was going on. And that can happen in any music.”
It wasn’t long before Carter was listening to saxophonists like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves for inspiration. “Later on, I started getting into vocalists,” she reports. “I remember doing a gig once and playing a ballad. I had just met Big Nick Nichols, and he asked me if I knew the words to that tune. I said ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Then you don’t know what you’re playing. You have to know the words.’ Then I started really getting interested in vocalists and listening to how they would phrase.”
Though she doesn’t sing herself, Carter’s interest in other singers inevitably influenced her bowing style. Her sweet tone is often reminiscent of Grappelli’s, who died in 1997, just shy of age 90.
“I think it’s the same tone I’ve probably always had,” she says. “It’s always interesting for me when I hear other violin players play jazz. That’s when I notice the different voices on this instrument, and it really hits me. I’m always curious. … John Blake sat in last week when we played here at Basil’s in New York. We were playing a Milt Jackson piece, a [Cuban] danzon. I always hear it the way I play it myself, and when he started playing, from the first note, the whole band, like, shifted. You could hear it. … They sat up, and it was something very different. It’s interesting how the sound and the way people approach it can really change how people listening react, and are reacting in the band as well.”
The violinist says she looks forward to playing in schools and doing workshops for students and general audiences.
“[Education is] important,” she contends, “because a lot of people don’t really understand what’s going on on-stage when they hear music, whether it’s jazz or what have you. They think maybe they like the music. It’s more difficult, because people don’t know in jazz when the improvisation begins and ends, and who’s taking solos. So if we go in and do clinics and talk about that, people feel like they understand what’s going on on-stage, and they’re more apt to come out and support whomever might come through. And it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes we work with the kids — that’s great, too, because we get a chance to hear them play.
“It gives them new ideas, and it helps us, too,” she notes. “When you’re teaching, you’re always talking about things, and you realize, ‘Ah, that’s something I need to be doing.’ You’re kind of talking to yourself at the same time.”