When saxophonist James Carter was in his 20s, he was on top of the world. His style — sweet and sensual one minute, agitated and violent the next — won him the admiration of listeners, critics, and jazz musicians.
That was the 1990s. Over the next 15 years, Carter tried on a bunch of different hats — hard bop, gypsy jazz, fusion, all-ballad programs, a Billie Holiday tribute, even an album of Pavement covers. Good stuff all. But now he’s 43 years old, the hype has long past, and the jazzerati is chattering about a new generation of 20-somethings (and teenagers). Here’s the thing, though: James Carter has never sounded better.
For the past several years, Carter has committed himself to the organ trio form — and specifically to a killer of a soul jazz outfit with organist Gerard Gibbs and drummer Leonard King Jr. Friday and Saturday they played Scullers Jazz Club for what was supposed to be two sets a night, but for some reason the late sets didn’t sell. This was good news for those attending the 8 p.m. shows — we were treated to unusually long sets. Friday night’s ran an hour and 50 minutes, unheard of in a jazz club.
These three guys used every second of it. They went nuts. Carter jerked his body back and forth — coming dangerously close to smacking his microphone stand with his tenor sax — as he blew passages that were alternately pretty and atonal on both the opener, “Bossa J.C.,” and the closer, the ridiculously loud and raucous “Lettuce Toss Yo’ Salad.”
It wasn’t the James Carter show, though. Each musician is an equal third in this trio, and the symbiosis drives it — a point made clear by the fact that they smiled, laughed, and even chatted with one another as they performed. King kept the beat churning as loud as humanly possible — dropping bombs here and there — and Gibbs demonstrated why he’s one of the best there is on the Hammond B-3. He simply could not run out of ideas — playing like a soulful church organist, clawing into grooves that would have made Jack McDuff blush (on an insanely long take of McDuff’s “Walking the Dog”), and slapping the keys so as to use the organ as a piece of percussion.
Humor found its way into the show, too. Presumably in honor of the Red Sox’ 12-2 win on opening day at Fenway a few hours earlier, Carter segued between tunes with an unaccompanied soprano sax improvisation off “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” that got all skronky and angry.
James Carter may no longer be the young phenom he once was. But I like where he’s at right now. He’s found his groove, and he’s sticking with it.