Born: January 3, 1969 Primary Instrument: Sax, tenor
Sometimes it takes an extraordinary talent to inspire an unprecedented piece of music. For Puerto Rican-born composer Roberto Sierra, the epiphany struck in the midst of a tenor saxophone solo by James Carter, who was appearing as the featured soloist with legendary soprano Kathleen Battle. Long fascinated by the horn, Sierra immediately realized he had encountered a master capable of playing anything he could imagine. Working closely with Carter over several months, he composed a four-part concerto that seamlessly integrates the forms and harmonic language of contemporary classical music, Latin rhythms, and jazz’s improvisational imperative. Documented on Carter’s 13th release and his second for Universal, Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra is a singular work that stands alone in the jazz and classical canons, half belonging to each world. In a fascinating collaboration that neither could have foreseen, one of classical music’s most widely respected composers has given this era’s most prodigious saxophonist the role of a lifetime.
“What immediately struck me was that he played with total command and mastery of the instrument,” says Sierra, a professor of composition at Cornell University. “James is the Paganini of the saxophone. He and the instrument are one. To me that was amazing, right from the start.”
Carter premiered the concerto with his hometown Detroit Symphony Orchestra in October 2002, a performance that elicited such a rapturous response that he and the orchestra reprised the last movement as an encore. As the Detroit News music critic reported, “In your lifetime, did you ever witness such a thingthe reprise of a new work, on the spot? Neither did I, until Thursday night, when Carter and conductor Neeme Jarvi finally gave in to a storm that showed no signs of abating and recapped the last long stretch of Roberto Sierra’s brilliant ‘Concerto for Saxophones.’”
Written for soprano and tenor saxophones, Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra and “Caribbean Rhapsody” (the CD title track) don’t just represent a new musical synthesis, they embody a state-of-the-art open-source collaboration in which Carter and Sierra worked through the piece’s details together, a process that continued up until they recorded the piece last year in Poland with a world-class orchestra under the direction of Costa Rican-raised conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (music director of the Nashville Symphony). For Carter, the premiere was just the beginning of an ongoing process exploring the emotional nuances and melodic contours of Sierra’s breathtakingly intricate work.
“Roberto said, ‘Let me know if something’s not happening. It’s your piece to deal with,’” recalls Carter, 42. “He’s not a stick- in-the-mud composer, pulling out his hair saying ‘You’re not playing it right!’ It continues to grow. I started thinking of the tenor and soprano as male and female roles, giving them a little more personality and incorporating some elements of the written material in the cadenza, which gave it more cohesion. There’s so much to draw from in the piece.”
In the early stages there was almost too much in the piece. At least that was Carter’s first impression upon receiving the score for the opening movement. Romantic and roiling, the concerto kicks off with rapidly shifting lines that jump and skitter from the bottom of the tenor to the top. The orchestra shadows the horn, converging and diverging in a series of quicksilver harmonic feints. When the beatific second movement arrives like a gentle breeze blowing across a balmy sunlit field, it feels as if a soul-shaking storm has passed, but Carter initially only saw the deluge.
“The score looked like a bunch of poppy seeds had fallen onto the page, with a bunch of bars going every which way,” Carter says. “I’m looking at all this ink being slung around, thinking, this cat’s trying to kill me! And this is only the first movement. I sat down with a metronome, and realized that it’s all about dancing metrics and if we keep it together and make sure every bar lands precisely, we’d be cool.”
Carter worked through the concerto’s various technical challenges, including several that he had never encountered before. In the sumptuously lyrical second movement, he has to switch seamlessly from soprano to tenor in midstream without missing a beat, a feat he repeats in the space of eight bars in the blazing third movement. Sierra showcases Carter’s soaring unaccompanied tenor in the cadenza leading to the fourth movement, which serves as the perfect setup for the hard-grooving title section, an atonal boogie-woogie blues that both embraces and blows apart jazz conventions.
“There are no real precedents for the concerto,” Sierra says. “A lot of work that wants to be in both of these idioms doesn’t work very well, because it loses the edge on both sides of the equation. To me it was clear I could not look at the past, I had to imagine something and do it.”
The album continues the musical dialogue between Sierra and Carter with the saxophonist’s soaring “Tenor Interlude” and dramatic “Soprano Interlude,” pieces he composed in response to the concerto and Sierra’s title composition. “Caribbean Rhapsody” draws inspiration from the sounds Sierra heard growing up in Puerto Rico, where music is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Carter is again featured on tenor and soprano, though this time he’s joined by master violinist and fellow Detroiter Regina Carter, and cellist Akua Dixon’s String Quintet. As a reed among strings Carter blends his sound beautifully with the ensemble, which handles the accelerating rhythms, from a caressing bolero to torrid salsa groove, with all the dexterity one expects from a world-class jazz combo.
An artist long intrigued by contrasts and hybrids, Carter resists comfortable categorization. Born and raised in Detroit, Carter grew up surrounded by music, soaking up everything from funk and fusion to rock, soul, and various strains of acoustic jazz. He studied with his musical father, Donald Washington, and had developed enough technique by his early teens to win a scholarship to the prestigious Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp (in 1985 he became the youngest faculty member at 16!) and Interlochen Center for the Arts summer program. He performed sporadic orchestral and club dates with Wynton Marsalis from December 1985 to July 1987. But it was the late trumpeter Lester Bowie who first brought Carter to New York, inviting him to perform with his New York Organ Combo.
Bowie dropped Carter’s name to a number of his associates, opening some important doors. Most significantly, Carter hooked up with the great altoist and groundbreaking composer Julius Hemphill, playing an essential role on his two last saxophone sextet albums, Fat Man and the Hard Blues and Five Chord Stud (both on Black Saint). It also led to playing and recording with one of his musical heroes, the late Frank Lowe and his group the Saxemble. The Bowie connection also led to Carter’s debut recording, the 1993 DWI/Columbia album JC on the Set, a quartet tour de force that announced the arrival of a superlative new talent equally expressive on alto, tenor, and baritone sax (though he’s added several other horns over the years, most importantly soprano sax).
It might seem odd that Carter has been associated with both Marsalis and Bowie, considering the two musicians clashed frequently over their diametrically opposed views of the jazz tradition. But Carter always finds a way into what ever musical situation he finds himself in, whether he’s working with an opera diva, an iconoclastic Chicago trumpeter, or a visionary classical composer.
“You have to be totally comfortable wherever,” Carter says. “I feel that music equals life, that’s the way my teacher always taught me. You just can’t go through life and experience it fully with a set of blinders on. I think there’s tremendous beauty in cross-pollinations of music and influences.”
In many ways, weaving together divergent impulses is at the heart of Carter’s music. Like the late tenor sax titan Ben Webster, he’s given to furious, high-velocity solos, but is just as likely to wax sentimental, using his big, bruising tone to tenderly caress a comely melody. In 2000, he released two albums simultaneously that amounted to an anti-manifesto, a proclamation that everything is fair game.
On Chasin’ the Gypsy, a voluptuous, lyrical session partly inspired by the timeless collaboration between Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, he assembled a thrilling group with violinist Regina Carter and Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, a project born out of some sound check jamming with Lubambo and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista during a tour with Kathleen Battle. The groove-laden Layin’ in the Cut, featuring James Blood Ulmer’s former rhythm section with electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Grant Calvin Weston, combines harmolodic freedom with a deep reservoir of funk, and developed out of a project inspired by another legendary guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.
He’s reinvented the organ combo (with 2005’s Out of Nowhere and again in 2009 with John Medeski on Heaven and Earth), explored the music of alt-rock band Pavement (on 2005’s Gold Sounds), and paid loving tribute to Billie Holiday (on 2003’s Gardenias for Lady Day). Taken in context, Carter’s creative rendezvous with Sierra makes perfect sense.
A protégé of the late, legendary Hungarian composer György Ligeti, Sierra first gained national attention in 1987 when his breakthrough orchestral composition, Júbilo, earned strong reviews after a Carnegie Hall performance by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Since then an international array of leading orchestras and ensembles has interpreted his music, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the American Composers Orchestra to Kronos Quartet and England’s BBC Symphony.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Sierra absorbed folk music and dance tunes, and he feels the rhythmic connection with Carter is the foundation of their collaboration. While Sierra didn’t listen widely to straight-ahead jazz in his formative years, the era’s most advanced salsa bands fascinated him, particularly Eddie Palmieri, while Carter had immersed himself in European classical music as an aspiring player.
“In a way, James somehow understood my melodic and harmonic language in the same way I understood his ability to improvise,” Sierra says. “I could sense what he could do, and he could sense what I wanted him to do. It’s up to future generations what happens with a composition. If something has the power to stay it will and I think this will live on.”