Regina Carter - Southern Comfort
(Sony Masterworks. CD review by Jon Turney)
Excavations of the past - personal, historical or both at once - are proving fruitful for US jazz people just now - see Dave Douglas' Be Still or the unfolding installments of Matana Roberts' Coin Coin project. Here, Regina Carter turns over some fertile musical soil from Alabama. Her paternal grandfather, whom she never knew, was a miner there, a connection which inspired a search for the music he might have heard.
The results bring together old folk strains with blues, bluegrass and country, all of which burst with life when channeled through her violin. Backing from Chris Lightcap or Jess Murphy on bass, Alvester Garnett's drums, Adam Rogers and Marvin Sewell on guitar and (less appealingly to my ear) Will Holshouser's accordion energises a set that has echoes of Bill Frisell's Americana-drenched ensembles.
Carter's Americana is less tongue-in-cheek than Frisell's tends to be, and some of the arrangements lean more to respectful recreation rather than reinvention - a little too respectful perhaps. The rudimentary basslines and rhythms here and there may hark back to simpler times but don't always keep the attention. But there are many fine moments spread over the 11 tracks here, the finest from Carter's marvellous violin playing.
That is plenty varied, too, from down home - though always retaining her classical purity of tone - on Blues de Basile to an Indian tinge in the closing moments of Breakaway and sharing some Mahavishnu orchestra moments with the guitar on the rocking I Moaned and I Moaned. The funked-up spiritual Trampin', the haunting melody of Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy, and its affecting vocal reprise as a cracked lullaby, the infectious shuffle of Honky Tonkin', the Appalachian charm of the children's song Shoo Rye and a new look at See See Rider all add flavour to the mix.
The musicians performing and arranging these pieces were all obviously drawn into the spirit of the project. Still, I doubt that Carter intended it, but the strength of her contributions is such that the songs seem to function mainly as settings for her playing. At the end, it is the violin sound that stays with you.
All in all perhaps, this disc is not as much of a landmark in Carter's discography as Douglas' or Roberts' efforts are in theirs. Nevertheless, this is a fine, heartfelt collection from a consistently interesting artist whose next project will undoubtedly be different.