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James Carter at the Dakota

Photo by John Toren

James Carter was a phenomenon at seventeen, a virtuoso on several reeds at twenty-one, and now that he’s 43…it sometimes seems that he still hasn’t quite got it altogether.

The show he put on at the Dakota Sunday night was dazzling, frustrating, and almost boring by turns, yet the final impact approached greatness. Or so it seems to me. That greatness was musical only in part. The rest came from the good feeling in the room, between the musicians and also from with several members of the audience who mean a great deal to Carter. He referred to them repeatedly in the course of the show, with great affection, as “Pops” and “Moms.” By the time the second set was over, they were both up on stage performing.

I ought to confess here I’m not a James Carter expert by any means. I heard him at the old Dakota in St. Paul many years ago in a quartet setting. It was a wild show, utter cacophony, Coleman Hawkins riffs, New Orleans roars, coming out of both horns to form a riotous tangle of sounds. It was loud and wild—one of the best shows I’ve ever heard.

I believe the man on the baritone sax that night was Donald Washington, the man in the audience whom Carter referred to the other night as “my musical father”—or simply “Pops.”

But the few Carter recordings I’ve heard seldom rise to that level. Carter seems reluctant to keep to any one tone or style for more than a minute or two, other than the honking free jazz mode, before he starts making strange noises, worrying and drawing out the notes, or heading off in a self-mocking, comical direction. It seems he can do anything on almost any horn, but he’s suspicious of ballads and he obviously prefers bluesy riffs to challenging Bebop chord changes. As often as not, he doesn’t seem to be playing from inside the music, but merely joking and raging through it.

The same attitude can be felt in his on-stage patter, an odd mix of insouciance, charm, sincerity, and affectation.

Photo by John Toren

The presence of ever-smiling drummer Leonard King, Jr. Sunday night was a blessing, and the rich tonal backdrop provided by Gerard Gibbs on the B-3 organ also helped to sustain that “Hey! Jazz can be fun!” mood, though Gibbs’s own solos often took a long time to gather steam and were among the low points of the evening.

Carter delivered flashes of brilliance throughout the first set, along with plenty of feverish high-energy riffs. He played a fine, pure intro to Ellington’s “Come Sunday” on the flute, and King delivered an extended scat solo on one of the up-tempo numbers.

If we’d left at intermission, I’d have considered it an engaging evening on the town, but musically schizophrenic and not entirely satisfying. But Dakota impresario Lowell Pickett assured the audience that there were seats available for anyone who wanted to stick around.

We went out into the lobby to secure our seats for the second set, then wandered Nicollet Mall for a block or two in the evening twilight. We discovered they’d been serving crawfish buckets out on the patio—that would have been entirely in keeping with the fun-loving and rather “Southern” first set.

Back at our table, I got to talking with the young man who’s been sitting next to us all along. I’d seen him chatting with one of the men sitting at the table behind us with Moms and Pops.

So, do you know those people?” I asked him.

“He’s my teacher, Kevin Washington. His parents were sort of mentors to James.”

“I see, so you must be a musician.”

“Yeah, I play the drums.”

When his mother returned from the bathroom the truth came out. This shy young man was Miguel Hurtado. He plays with various groups around town. He’ll be on stage for a late-night set at the Dakota drumming for trumpeter Jake Baldwin on August 18.

By this time Carter himself had come over to chat with Moms. (I don’t know where Pops had gone.) I went over to say hello, but didn’t want to interrupt their conversation. James was telling Moms about his flute, pointing at things as she held it in her hand. From what I could tell, he’d bought it in a pawn shop in Winnipeg. There was some note he could hit on that thing that he’d never hit before.

Finally, I said, interrupting, “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I hope you don’t mind my talking your picture.”

“Not at all, go right ahead,” he said graciously, turning his head.

Photo by John Toren

They both smiled and I got my shot. (It was very low light.)

“Thanks very much,” I said, “I loved the first set…”

But before I could make my exit, Carter said, “Wait a minute. I don’t suppose you’d take our picture?” He pulled out a little camera.

“OK, get closer together, scrunch up a bit, this will be good,” I said, and I took the shot.

James began his intro to the second set talking about the bucket of crayfish he’d just eaten. I couldn’t hear much of what he’d said, but clearly he’d been enjoying himself. Finally he said, “But enough of this colored humor…We’re going to open the second set with a number off my Caribbean album.”

From the first note, the band was in a higher groove, and the energy only increasing when Carter invited Pops up onto the stage. A twenty-minute explosion ensued, not unlike the set I’d heard in St. Paul—though this time we were sitting farther from the stage.

King sang a mellow rendition of the ballad “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” and Carter followed up with a few rich choruses. And even Gibbs started to put out a little more, moving beyond the funky chord-rattling and repetitive hi-jinks into a more inventive vein.

In fact, throughout the evening Carter seemed to be enjoying himself, and in time both his energy and his good humor began to rub off. The ballad came at just the right time, and when Carter invited Moms up on the stage to sing some scat and play the flute, it seemed the evening was finally complete: music, love, honoring the elders, crayfish, religion, energy. Lots of hugging and smiling on stage, lots of grinning in the audience. I knew my ears would be ringing when we stepped out into the night.

Carter’s showmanship often gets in the way of his musicianship, but in the course of this four-hour display of artistry, both elements gave way to vibrant expressions of hospitality and good-feeling.

In fact, Miguel’s mother was shimmying so hard during the grand finale I was afraid her chair might break.

This post was written by John Toren and originally published on Macaroni.

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