It's James Carter, the unstoppable sax machine

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
LIKE boxers, bullfighters and bad-ass bond dealers, American jazz saxophonists tend to be subject to a myth of machismo. As in The Golden Bough, the current king of the castle has to be on the lookout for any new kid on the block who might be out to usurp his throne. Even before Sonny Rollins appeared on the cover of his Fifties Way Out West album dressed in gunfighter's garb, competition as to who was the fastest, toughest or tenderest tenor sax-player was inscribed in the history of the music, with tradition decreeing that no matter how good a player is, there's always going to be another one along in a minute.

Thus the entry of 26-year-old James Carter into London last week was preceded by his reputation as the latest sax contender. Come show-time at the Rhythmic in Islington, north London, the gallery of seats around the stage took on the look of a ringside, with old pros and aspiring champions gathered round to see if the kid could really cut it. And Carter, otherwise an impeccably spoken, scholarly young man from Detroit with a taste for serious suits (and a politically correct view of jazz as an art form that has long outgrown the nightclub and the divisive cutting-contest ethic), had clearly internalised the mythic demands of the moment. Abandoning his customary suit for a kind of harlequin top, leather trousers and a nifty African cap, he put a soprano saxophone to his mouth and began to wail, using the first number to go through the entire lexicon of expressive honks, squalls and show-boating gimmicks that most players conserve for incremental release throughout an evening's performance.

After just one chorus he embarked on a sustained bout of circular breathing - keeping the note going forever by continuously taking in air through the nose - only relinquishing it to set up a bravura display of deep- bass harmonics, overblowing on the reed until each single note split into a chord. The noise made the floor of the club tremble. When he stopped, signalling the pianist to take over the solo, he looked out at the audience and smiled slyly before taking up a seat by the bandstand, sipping at an orange juice and engaging his wife in conversation as if he'd just come back home from a day at the office. The ringside posse sat open-mouthed in amazement; it wasn't really music - yet - but taken as a series of heroic gestures, Carter had slayed the dragon, stomped on the corpse and fed the remains to his band, all in the space of a 10- minute warm up.

For the next number he continued to do more of the same, achieving a level of intensity that, for 10 o'clock in a late-night club, was positively unseemly. And, as he played, he moved dynamically, fulfilling all the emotional demands of a cathartic ritual - though it still wasn't what you'd call music, more like power-boat racing in a dangerously confined space. The music arrived when Carter swapped to alto sax and began a long ballad from his new album, The Real Quiet Storm (Atlantic), sweetening the sound of his previously sand-blasted tone with breathy curlicues and swooning arabesques in the manner of Ben Webster. The band, though, still hadn't got a look in and Carter performed as if driven by the sax- man myth, each and every note insisting on the primacy of his talent. Occasionally it was exhausting to listen to, like having a brand new car stuck in top gear when what you really wanted was to idle in traffic and contemplate the scenery.

But Carter wouldn't give up. After the ballad, as if to teach his listeners a lesson, he immediately went into a full-tilt blues march in the manner of Roland Kirk or Albert Ayler, making his tenor sax squawk and howl against a fevered backbeat from the band. When at last he left the stand in triumph, the audience reeling from the relentless brilliance of it all, you were ready to give in and admit that the sax-man myth is a double-edged sword. If Carter really wants to wear his suit and play concert halls maybe we should let him; certainly, there would be far more music in the end.