It’s been almost four years, but Regina Carter still remembers the phone call. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.
“I get this call, it’s probably nine in the morning, before I’d had coffee—I thought it was a prank call, and I wasn’t too amused,” she recalls with a laugh. “The person said, ‘Obviously, you don’t know about the MacArthur Foundation.’ I said, ‘I do know about the MacArthur Foundation—what’s your name and number? I’ll call you back.’ I made my coffee and I called the number back and I said, ‘Does this person work in your office?’ and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll put you right through.’ Then I was stunned. I can’t even tell you. It was like everything froze.”
The so-called genius grant, which Carter received in September 2006, allowed the Detroit-born violinist to go back to school, but perhaps more importantly, it helped alleviate some personal sorrows. “I’d had such a dark year the year before—gone through a huge lawsuit and lost my mother—so at that point, I needed some sunshine,” she says. “I felt like that was the universe and my mother saying, ‘Here.’ “
Carter began studying classical violin at age four; she didn’t even know there was such a thing as jazz violin until high school, when a friend introduced her to the music of Noel Pointer, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stéphane Grappelli. A live Grappelli performance convinced her jazz was her destiny. “There was so much camaraderie between the musicians. This light went on, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want when I play’ . . . not knowing the journey I was about to be faced with.”
That journey has taken Regina Carter from the all-female jazz-pop quintet Straight Ahead to a solo career that’s encompassed funky smooth jazz, old-style swing, classical, and now African music. She has played an 18th-century violin that once belonged to Niccolò Paganini, and done session work for Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, and Detroit techno pioneer Carl Craig. On 2006’s I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey, she paid tribute to her late mother through interpretations of popular songs like “Sentimental Journey,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”
Her forthcoming disc, Reverse Thread, due out May 18, takes her music down a very different path. Her band includes longtime drummer Alvester Garnett, bassist Chris Lightcap, accordionist Will Holshouser, and kora player Yacouba Sissoko, who learned the instrument from his grandfather. (“You know when you hear that name or a rendition of that name, ‘Oh, they play kora.’ “) With MacArthur money behind her, she disappeared into New York’s World Music Institute and re-emerged inspired by field recordings, particularly some tapes of the Ugandan Jews, a community that practices Judaism despite being neither genetically nor historically Jewish. Reverse Thread reinterprets melodies based on the Ugandan songs “Hiwumbe Awumba” and “Mwana Talitambula”; the former opens the disc, while the latter comes two tracks from its end, finding Carter’s ultra-clean violin lines shadowed by Lightcap’s bowed bass.
“Every culture of music on the planet involved a violin-like instrument, so my ear would always be drawn to that,” recalls Carter of the decades of listening, studying, and playing that led her to this record, where folkish melodies combine with a gentle swing that occasionally erupts into full-on hillbilly fiddlin’, the kora and accordion providing countermelodies. “Every music has its own groove or its own soul.” Her own contribution isn’t jazz, or folk, or “world”—it’s all those things and more, pure human joy filtered through technical virtuosity.
Regina Carter plays Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola March 23-28