Perhaps you were wowed when violinist Regina Carter put some modern twists on swing jazz—and swing twists on modern jazz—in her 2003 set in the Jazz Tent. Maybe your jaw dropped if you watched her show her vast range in a 2006 evening show with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at Tulane.
Then there’s her recording legacy, from avant-swing to standards to Paganini (played on Paganini’s own violin), and performances with such stars as Wynton Marsalis, Max Roach, Aretha Franklin, Ms. Lauryn Hill and Billy Joel, as well as her cousin, saxophonist James Carter. Oh, and Dolly Parton too. That range and ambition impressed the MacArthur Foundation, which gave her one of their $500,000 awards—the “genius” grant—in September 2006.
For all that expectation-defying artistry, if you see her set this year, on May 3, you may still find yourself asking, “How did she get from that to this?”
This is Reverse Thread, the title of her 2010 album and the name of her sextet that will play at Jazz Fest. The distinctive jazz-African fusion features a unique lineup of her violin, drummer Alvester Garnett (her husband), guitarist Adam Rogers and bassist Chris Lightcap with Youcouba Sissoko on the West-African harp known as the kora and Will Holshouser on accordion.
“I wanted to do a world music record,” she explains.
Simple enough. But the starting point of this journey is a bit surprising.
“I wanted specifically to concentrate on Christian Arab music, music of the Palestinians,” she says. “I was exposed to that growing up in Detroit, which has a large population of Palestinian Christians. I thought I would concentrate on that.”
That led her to the World Music Institute in New York, not far from her current home in New Jersey, for research. And that’s where the next twist came.
“When I walked in to buy some music, this woman handed me some field recordings from Ugandan Jews,” she says. “It didn’t have anything to do with my interest.”
But the concept intrigued her. Ugandan Jews bear only tenuous connection to Israeli and European Jews, and the sounds themselves were intriguing on their own. That led her to explore other African traditions, especially those bringing cultures together.
“I looked at music I had gathered and was most drawn to, and it seemed to not be a specific place, but all over the continent,” Carter says. “I decided, ‘Record companies will say your music is all over the place.’ That’s my thing, so why stop now?”
She put together the concept of the band before choosing material. Holshouser had been playing with her, and she was pleased to find that accordion was not uncommon in various African cultures, notably music of the West and East coastal countries. Adding a kora was the final, and arguably key, piece.
“I knew I wanted another stringed instrument,” she says. “Wanted to be more of a chamber acoustic group.”
The material followed, some drawn from those inspiring ethnographic recordings (which she sometimes plays over the P.A. at concerts to show where the music came from) to pieces originating with contemporary artists both tradition-minded (Malian guitarist Boubacar Traoré) and modernist (married duo Amadou and Mariam, also from Mali; Senegal’s Habib Koité), all transformed by the lively interplay and freewheeling chops of Carter and company. Since the album’s release, the group uses the recorded versions as launching pads for extended, thrills-filled excursions.
For Carter, it’s a constant learning process, starting with the African roots of her instrument. “A lot of slaves played not only for themselves but at gatherings,” she says. “And there’s fiddle music in Uganda. Then there’s the accordion. I didn’t know and didn’t think about it being part of any music coming from Africa.”
She is now exploring these connections to African-American music of the South—including her family’s roots in Alabama—for a potential follow-up album, but it’s not her only pursuit. Of late, she’s done shows with Kurt Elling and Anat Cohen, performed a piece with orchestra composed for her by Billy Childs, and collaborated with Argentine tango composer Pablo Ziegler. She’s also worked with polymath Joe Jackson on his latest project centering on Duke Ellington tunes with a tour in the plans.
Even at Jazz Fest, she’s not content to do just one thing. On the day after her set, she’ll be the featured guest with jazz-soul singer-drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. The chance to mix things up is one of the great appeals to her of Jazz Fest as a performer and as a fan. She might even check out Mali’s Cheick Hamala Diabate, master of the banjo-ancestor ngoni, also scheduled for May 3.
“That’s one of the great things about this festival,” she says. “It’s never boxed itself in.”
Regina Carter plays Jazz Fest on Thursday, May 3 at 4:15 p.m. in the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent.