REGINA CARTER QUINTET
February 11, 2017
by Joe Major
Given the Valentine season, Regina Carter could not have chosen a more fitting time to deliver a rapturous love letter to Ella Fitzgerald. Saturday at The Egg, her life-long, unabashed affection for the “First Lady of Song” fueled the launch of this “Simply Ella” tour, as well as a soon to be released CD, “Ella: Accentuate the Positive.”
From the opening bluesy strains of 1965’s “Imagine My Frustration,” the quintet declared their intention to at once pay homage to, and personally interpret, decades-old source material. In league with pianist Xavier Davis, guitarist Marvin Sewell, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Alvester Garnett, Carter discretely contoured her dynamics and embroidered a program of exacting, elastic tonal fabric.
There’s something about the violin, jazz violin in particular, that brings out the latent acoustic scientist in listeners, spurring analogues between the physics of vibrating strings, and the human voice. Homespun dissertations on coloration, spectral envelopes, frequency and amplitude modulation are frequently close at hand. Truth be known, I fall prey to that very syndrome. But I plead, however, that the Fitzgerald canon is irresistibly fertile territory for staging perceived voice-to-instrument comparisons of texture, nuance and timbre.
The Regina Carter Quintet was ready to plow that same ground. In an interview a few days before tonight’s date, Carter recounted how, years earlier, a fellow musician had advised that, as an instrumentalist, she ought “to know the words of what you’re playing.” Carter took that to heart, and to this day allows how, “I sing through my instrument.” That vocal to violin credo served as a template for the entire evening.
Cases in point were the contextualizing preludes to 1953’s “Crying in the Chapel” and the show-ending 1935 “I’ll Chase the Blues Away.” Carter held up a smartphone each time in order to wash the audience in an audio wave of vintage Ella that was haunting and poignant. Setting the melody, setting the ambiance, she literally channeled Ella’s spirit. After a moment or two of staticy scratched nostalgia the band sprang to life, and the transition was like being extruded through a time machine. They leveraged their arrival in the present day with sprouting twenty-first century virtuosic charm. The effect was startling and resuscitative.
I was fascinated by the aged provenance of Ella’s original recording dates, many announced, some I ferreted out, because the quintet’s dexterity in fashioning contemporary jazz from that archival canvas was a measure of their creative congress, and insight.
Plumbing mostly lesser-known B-sides, Carter and company swung with vigorous heft and decelerated with pining, keening sensitivity. Lightcap and Garnett exercised a tisket and a tasket full of spinal rhythmic integrity throughout the set. No matter the tempo, a signature Carter move seemed to be an ascending, then descending, fine stitchery whose throaty or whispery tone captioned each piece.
Carter stepped away from the quintet for a duet with Sewell on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy.” The 1934 Fitzgerald version was rendered nearly samba-esque, with guitar and violin further contributing to the night’s pinpoint portraiture.
And on Ella’s 1937 “Dedicated to You” she and pianist Davis struck out on their own, and constructed an earnestly resolute, almost soberly sedate commemorative ballad that managed to be composed, yet wrought raw. In the coda Carter again buttoned things up with light, emotive, needlework phrasing.
The band’s crackling soon to be title track, a 60s Ella version of Harold Arlen’s 1934 “Accentuate the Positive,” served as the night’s buoyant aspirational compass. Originally taken from a church sermon, the recorded lyrics were rousingly life-affirming. And so was the quintet’s treatment, circulating their solos as if they were episodic mini memoirs. They became dioramas interspersed within the tune’s entirety, embodying an irrepressible and reflective life cycle.
Carter’s dauntlessly infectious enthusiasm heralded a renewed era, a reclaimed ethos, arching toward us over the long span of years, wherein a world might welcome (attention: bumper sticker ahead)…“more wag, less bark.”
Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.