About 10 minutes into my phone conversation with violinist Regina Carter, we’re interrupted by the loud blast of a train whistle on her end of the line in Maywood, N.J. “Petticoat Junction!” says Carter with a hearty laugh. We wait for the second blast before Carter continues. “Luckily, it’s a freight, and it doesn’t come through that often.”
There’s something weirdly appropriate about that train whistle — contemporary as it is, it’s also the sound of history, a sound that takes us further back than, say, the sound of a jet engine. And Carter’s work for the past decade or so has been all about history — family history in particular, and through that the story of cultural mix and migration, the story of the country as a whole.
Carter’s latest album, “Southern Comfort,” her Sony Masterworks debut, gave the Detroit-born musician a way to explore her Southern heritage — specifically, the life and times of her paternal grandfather, a man she never met. The album begins with the music he might have heard as an Alabama coal miner in the early part of the 20th century— the traditional children’s song “Shoo-Rye,” the lullaby “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy,” the Baptist hymn “I’m Going Home,” the early gospel piece “I Moaned and I Moaned.”
Though the project began by focusing on a specific time and place, with songs Carter dug up in the Alan Lomax and John Work III folklore collections, it soon expanded to include the Cajun fiddle music of western Louisiana, Hank Williams’s “Honky Tonkin,’ ” and Gram Parsons’s “Hickory Wind.” Carter and her band bring the music to Sanders Theatre for a Celebrity Series of Boston concert on Oct. 17.
Carter, 48, has been a jazz star for decades now. A violinist since the age of 4, she played with the pop-jazz quintet Straight Ahead in the late ’80s, made solo albums for Atlantic and Verve, recorded with Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson, and, through the ’90s, was a member of the avant-garde-leaning String Trio of New York.
“Southern Comfort” is the third album to specifically dig into Carter’s personal history. “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey” (2006) was a tribute to her late mother, with jazz standards from the ’20s to the ’40s. “Reverse Thread” (2010) looked at the traditional music of Africa.
Carter says she’s always been fascinated by her ancestry. “It started years ago . . . with ‘Who am I?’ That’s a question I’ve been curious about since I was a child.” Adds “Southern Comfort” guitarist Marvin Sewell, approvingly, “Regina’s like a musicologist, always searching, always investigating.”
In 2006, Carter won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship and that, she said, gave her some “breathing room,” time to do research and explore the questions that had always fascinated her. She took a DNA genealogy test and discovered that her bloodline was 73 percent West African and 13 percent . . . Finnish.
Carter laughs. “I was, like, ‘Finnish?’”
“Reverse Thread” dug into West African traditional pieces as well as contemporary songs by the likes of Habib Koite, Papo Vazquez, and Boubacar Traore. For “Southern Comfort,” Carter kept the same core format — violin, accordion, guitars, bass, and drums, minus indigenous African instruments like the kora. It’s impressive how well this lineup adapts to the two repertoires; Will Holshouser’s accordion is especially versatile, with its ability to conjure a church organ or pump a Cajun two-step like Dennis McGee’s “Blues de Basile.” But it’s also revelatory to go back to Mariam Doumbia’s “Artistiya” on “Reverse Thread” and hear how. . . well, Appalachian it sounds, with a strong Celtic tinge.
“I think it’s definitely there,” says Carter of the musical affinity. “When you think of all the different cultures that moved around and where we ended up, it’s definitely there.”
Those revelations link “Southern Comfort” with the music of modern revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose studies of the Piedmont region of North Carolina have unearthed the African-American tradition in what is sometimes thought of as white hillbilly music. “That’s the mixing of the cultures all in the South and right up through Philadelphia,” says Carter. “All of that mixed together to get that unique sound.” She adds, “We’re all connected — you hear it in the music — whether we want to be or not!”
In fact, Carter was turned on to “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy,” indirectly, by the Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, who told her about the recordings of the song’s performer, Vera Ward Hall. Here, as in the other pieces — despite the pell-mell two-step of “Blues de Basile” or the touch of New Orleans funk in the traditional “Trampin’ ” — it’s impressive how much Carter’s violin expresses through restraint. In this case, a simple change in register, from high-lying notes to deep growls, helps to bring out the vocal character of the melody.
Carter says that holding back can sometimes be the most difficult challenge for a jazz player. “Most of these tunes are vocal tunes,” says Carter. “I tend to gravitate toward that. They’re so beautiful and so raw and so simple. I get in my own way and think, ‘OK, I’ve got to prove something, I’ve got to play some [jazz] changes.’ . . . I get all heady about it. And it’s like, ‘No, stop, this is really beautiful, simple music, and the way these people sang it, that’s what attracted you to it, so why get in the way?’”
‘It started years ago . . . with “Who am I?” That’s a question I’ve been curious about since I was a child.’
At this point, Carter hasn’t decided on her next project, or how she’ll continue to explore her roots through music. “At concerts I say, ‘The next record will be Finnish music!’ Go find my people!” She laughs. “I guess I better start figuring that out soon.”Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.