Paganini Dreams and Evenings With Ellington: Jazz Violinist Regina Carter Revives the Canon

If some ignorant fellow once told you that violins were for geeks and hillbillies, think again. Detroit native and Manhattan resident Regina Carter is a well traveled urban sophisticate, an attractive, articulate, righteous African-American woman who just happens to be a classical violin virtuoso. She also happens to have jazz chops to hang with the best of them and happens to be bound for St. Louis’s Jazz at the Bistro March 2 through 5.

Carter’s unique jazz voice started at age four when she first learned Suzuki violin. By high school, she was interested in branching out. “My first introduction to jazz was by way of three violinists: Jean Luc Ponty, Noel Pointer, and Stephane Grappelli. I was excited by the freedom that jazz offered these players and intrigued by improvisation. I started messing around with jazz in high school. One of my dearest friends and great vocalist, Carla Cook, is responsible for my introduction to jazz. At that point, Carla also played upright bass so we played together and in other groups. We thought we had the world on a string.” After stints at Oakland University and the prestigious New England Conservatory, Carter hit the professional scene.

As she relates via phone from her Manhattan home, there were obstacles along the way for a female jazz violinist. “There was some resistance in the beginning, more because I was a violin player than because I was a woman, although maybe being both was tougher.” She didn’t suffer the close-mindedness long. “I would make a mental note of who gave me trouble, and I would never work with them again; that was their issue and I had a gig to do.”

Carter built a prolific recording career that featured her in quintet settings and other diverse jazz groups. Her deep toned violin sound also found its way into musical settings as unlikely as Mary J Blige’s 1994 My Life and Patti LaBelle’s 1997 Flame. Her 1995 self-titled Atlantic Jazz debut won much critical praise and sold well. Especially tasteful was her Freefall, a 2001 Verve recording of duets with pianist Kenny Barron. By late 2001, Carter found herself with a very important gig to do, one that no other African-American violinist or any other jazz violinist had ever performed. In the aftermath of September 11, as a gesture of healing by local Italian officials, strings were pulled, setting the stage for Carter to play “The Cannon.” This famous violin was designed in 1743 and made famous by the baroque master Nicolo Paganini, himself a fine improviser. Guarded and preserved in Genoa since the late 18th century, “Il Canone” was renowned for its especially full sound. It was only through elaborate arrangements, red tape, and under tight security that Carter was allowed to perform with it. After a successful live jazz debut in Italy, “Il Canone” was put into Carter’s hands for recording her 2003 Verve release, Paganini: After a Dream. In the liner notes of that lush jazz album, Carter relates her “dreams about dropping this treasured instrument.” More importantly she also called it “an experience that I [could not] begin to put into words.”

While the Genoa experience was both profound and maddening, it underlined just how esteemed the arts are in Europe compared to the U.S. “There is no parallel to the Paganini violin in this country. Music is suffering in the country, period…we just don’t really have a respect for the arts. It starts with the government; we need to have a cultural ambassador. Corporations need to get involved without demanding control.” As for orchestras struggling with tight budgets and the resulting labor strife, “While I don’t play in an orchestra, I know these orchestras are suffering like all of us.”

Making her living through tireless performing, Carter’s current tour is unique among jazz musicians in that it mixes symphonic concerts in large halls with jazz shows in small clubs. We spoke only two nights before she appeared with the Atlanta Symphony. As for switching gears between classical and jazz, “It’s not the venue that’s really difficult. It’s more the shifting headspace going from orchestra to the quintet. When you’re playing with an orchestra, it has to be set and can’t be quite open. There can be more spontaneity with the quintet, but overall one [setting] makes me appreciate the other.”

Carter will bring a new group to St. Louis. In the rare time she won’t be performing, educating, or catching up with friends, Carter will be working on ideas for her upcoming spring recording session. “It will be a quintet record, but with some tunes that are smaller; right now, it’s just ideas thrown in a shoebox. I really need to force my hand.” Influences that might help her force her hand these days are many: “My husband just got me an iPod for Christmas, but I’m not ashamed to say I still like a tape deck. I’m listening to a lot of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Duke Ellington these days.” She would love to work with pianist Danilo Perez or vocalist Deedee Bridgewater.

As with many of the artists Jazz at the Bistro hosts, Carter will conduct educational sessions during the day, to which she is very committed. “I do a lot of education. I think it’s important to give back. Kids aren’t exposed to the music at a young age; they have MTV, and that’s all they think they need.” One wonders how many of those MTV kids view the violin the same way that ignorant fellow did earlier and just how long it would take Regina Carter to educate them. My guess is one set or less.

Regina Carter appears at Jazz at the Bistro Wednesday, March 2 through Saturday, March 5, two sets nightly at 8:30 and 10:30 p.m.

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