Atlantic’s simultaneous release of James Carter’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, a tribute to Django Reinhardt, and Layin’ in the Cut, an exercise in jazz funk, reminds me of a moment from my childhood when the same label released two LPs by Bobby Darin, At the Copa and For Teenagers Only. Darin was trying to cross over to a grown-up, moneyed audience while keeping the allowanced one in line. Carter, as he notes in a press release, wants, “in light of the millennium thing, to have one foot in the past, in a musical sense, and another moving forward in time.” So which is which? The way I hear it, the largely entertaining Layin’ in the Cut takes the limited idea of virtuoso noodling over an electric backbeat as far as it can go, while the creamy homage opens new vistas in the realm of reinterpretation.
Admittedly, this realm is no longer a princely one. The jazz landscape is littered with pointless tributes and reinterpretations. What a relief to hack through all the Monk and Ellington salutes to get back to Monk and Ellington. Still, I don’t think Chasin’ the Gypsy will fade so quickly. It will make you want to hear the great Django—the better you know the originals, the more you can savor Carter’s heady adaptations. But loving the Romany legend, many of whose best sides have now been issued by Mosaic as The Complete Django Reinhardt and Quintet of the Hot Club of France Swing/HMV Sessions 1936-1948, will not slake the thirst Carter creates for his own faithfully intense, high-calorie vision. Carter’s approach to the past, demonstrated less pointedly on earlier records, is not to turn backward on bended knee, but to go after it like a benevolent Ahab. He makes Django a 21st-century man.
Carter has always been a bear for ear-pinning entrances, beginning with the 1993 JC on the Set, and remains true to form in Chasin’ the Gypsy, opening with the 1940 theme, “Nuages,” that established Reinhardt as a French icon during the occupation. He begins with a thumping bass-drum-and-castanet vamp and then introduces the melody on bass saxophone, a sleepy-eyed brontosaurus in the hands of most players that here turns deep-chested and remarkably limber. Reinhardt himself began his recording with a weirdly minacious intro that seemed to augur a train piece, not the nostalgically Debussyan melody that became his calling card; he employed two clarinets to beef up the climax and a cowbell to ruffle the rhythm. Carter permits an unnecessary touch of cowbell (little more than an in-joke), but the beef is all his own. The bass sax alone would rumble the china, while Charlie Giordano’s accordion obbligato captures a world of Gallic lyricism—it might have worked in a Tati film score. Guitarists Jay Berliner and Romero Lumambo are usually heard in tandem, as they are here, doubling the time and avoiding Djangoisms. Carter’s barreling solo lacks the poignance and detail of the Gypsy’s, but it is vindicated by a romantic fury and total commitment to the chords and their ambient demands. He closes with the first of several cadenzas, gliding to a lovely high note to bring in the ensemble.
If “Nuages” is anthemic, the follow-up is the album’s most obscure and charming touch, the childlike melody of “La Dernière Bergère,” which Django recorded once, in 1935, as accompanist to singer Jean Sablon, whose concerts at Theater Daunou a couple of years earlier had helped establish the guitarist’s career. Sablon performed the unusually constructed piece with rubato elasticity, slowing and rushing the time, as Carter does in the first chorus before a transitional guitar episode charges the time. Here the details count for a great deal. Carter is never more at home than on tenor—the rippled low notes at the first turnback, the crafty tonguing, the increasing ripeness of his timbre, and the shrieking full-bore climax, wasting the song’s gentility, then returning to it for a protracted coda.
The English composer and critic Constant Lambert described Reinhardt as “without doubt, the most interesting figure in the world of jazz since Duke Ellington, and like him . . . not so much an arranger as a composer.” Carter makes a persuasive case for Django’s tunes with his own luminous arrangements. He treats “Manoir de Mes Rêves,” his most Ellingtonian theme (especially in a 1945 big-band version), with alternating toughness and tenderness over a powerful four-beat, kicking into his solo with a bluesy “Black Coffee” lick. Django, who soaked up the melodies heard in music halls and cabarets, had an infallible ability to cauterize sentimentality in devising his own, something Carter achieves with his virtuosity, which at times is so extravagant as to make you want to laugh out loud.
His technique abides relatively quietly in “Manoir,” which ends with one of his patented two-note chords, and leads to an all-out assault on two coronary attacks, “Chasin’ the Gypsy,” an original based on “I Got Rhythm” changes, and the 1920s standard “Avalon.” The first opens coolly enough with soprano and Joey Baron drum breaks, but after the head, the rhythm section stiffens into an automaton to keep up; the joke is that the second choruses of Carter’s and violinist Regina Carter’s solos rush the tempo into a brittle no-man’s-land where you can’t help but be dazzled by the very conceit of the thing. Regina, in perhaps her most impressive recorded outing, easily holds her own, quoting Django’s trademark Bach, the D minor concerto for two violins. She and James are the soloists for the more frantic “Avalon,” which begins with a guitar solo that skirts the tune, entering on the downbeat with no intro at all. Carter’s first tenor chorus is swinging joy, the second screechy grit. Eight-bar and four-bar exchanges between the Carters (no relation) are a roller coaster; don’t miss James’s balancing of top and low notes in bars 9 to 12 of their second chorus. The closing supersonic ensemble ends on a dime, except that someone dropped gear and they decided to keep the noise on the record—sort of like the clop cymbal at the end of “West End Blues.”
Perhaps the finest arrangements, however, are “Artillerie Lourde,” a Reinhardt swing riff that recalls “Tuxedo Junction” and anticipates “Such Sweet Thunder” in its brassy bravado, and “Oriental Shuffle,” which has an illusory slowing-down in the second half of the A sections and features Carter on F mezzo saxophone, which suggests a serpentine alto. Carter plays bass sax with tremendous bite on the former, while the accordion plugs in the theme’s offbeats. The latter opens with a cymbal wash and exotic scene setting, before Carter states the theme with a surging, humorous-happy lyricism reminiscent of Benny Carter (no relation). Baron, who occasionally sounds busy on the potboilers, is mostly plush here.
The album has two lullabies, Carter’s “Imari’s Lullaby,” a brief rubato tenor and guitars meditation, and a stunningly slow, almost dirgelike “I’ll Never Be the Same” that is all texture—violin states theme, counterpunched by bass sax, with accordion filling in the middle—and rich as pastry. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bass sax sound as supple, melodic, and personable; the bubbling bass line he plays in counterpoint as the violin takes the lead is a champagne highlight in a champagne album.
Because the material is so varied and, by the standards of au courant jazz, unusual, Chasin’ the Gypsy is a near perfect distillation of Carter’s technique. Virtuosity is every bit as central to Layin’ in the Cut, but here it seems more studied and I find myself often admiring the gee-whiz tricks more than I like them. The record is not dull, except in a few ponderous codas, and the aggressive daring is amusing almost by default, but the brittleness and constancy of his attack wear me down after a couple of tracks. When he brought his state-of-the-art electric band—Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Jef Lee Johnson, and G. Calvin Weston (Marc Ribot didn’t make it)—into the Blue Note recently, I was dazzled by two pieces and anaesthetized by the other two. Listening to the album, I continue to prefer the same two tracks, perhaps because their rhythms surmount hidebound funkiness: Johnson’s ebullient “Terminal B” and Carter’s engaging “G.P.,” a Horace Silver-inspired piece complete with suspenseful two-bar breaks. Carter needs melody to balance his steely, pitch-perfect precision. In funk terrain, the popped keys and tongued reeds, the harmonics and circular breathing, the whole retinue of saxophonics seem slightly robotic. Put another way, Layin’ in the Cut is mostly muscle. Chasin’ the Gypsy is heart and soul—the future, I hope.