Many casual jazz fans don’t realize that the violin has been a serious part of the genre about as long as the saxophone, trumpet, and piano; Stephane Grappelli was swapping solos with Django Reinhardt when the label “jazz” was fresh. Though other instruments have certainly overshadowed it, stubborn fiddlers have continued to be a part of things, from populists like Jean-Luc Ponty to avant-garde players such as Billy Bang.
As you would expect, many of these players cross over from the classical world. That’s the case with Detroit native Regina Carter, whose training made her particularly suited for the transition: As a young child, Carter wasn’t eager to learn to read music (one story has it that she showed up at a lesson with ruled paper covered with hand-drawn dinosaur eggs, claiming “Here’s a tune I wrote,” and proceeded to play a new song). She was switched into the Suzuki program, in which children are taught to play by ear rather than sight-reading notes from a page. Though she learned to read later, and went on to perform with classical ensembles, her ear-centricity made her a natural for more improvisational forms.
It also gave Carter a charming self-deprecatory streak that reveals itself in many of her interviews; she’s quick to talk about her insecurities on the bandstand, where she often finds herself among players with more theoretical know-how, but she also has a way of dealing with that self-doubt: “I had a big-band teacher who always said if you’re going to make a mistake, do it loud and do it with vengeance,” she told a Down Beat interviewer — that seems to be one of the keys to her success. Risk-taking is a part of her overall philosophy as well; not only has she played sideman gigs with every sort of performer (Tanya Tucker to Patti LaBelle, Lauryn Hill to Max Roach — she was one of the highlights of Wynton Marsalis’ epic composition “Blood on the Fields”); but she incorporates a variety of styles in her own music. On one hand, she studied non-violin beboppers in an attempt to find a voice unlike her predecessors. For more than a year, she transcribed Charlie Parker solos — eight hours a day. But her solo records also draw from other forms entirely: soul, fusion, Latin and Afro-Cuban grooves, quasi-free jazz.
Some of those divergent sources combine on her latest record from Verve, Motor City Moments. Here, a tune by jazz balladeer Milt Jackson is reborn as a Cuban danzón, and sits beside a blaxploitation theme song by Marvin Gaye, “Don’t Mess With Mr. T.” Motown (Detroit’s own) is further represented by Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which gets a percussive African coat thrown over it; in the middle of the record is, of all things, the love theme from the Stanley Kubrick swords-and-sandals epic, Spartacus. (That’s not exactly as far out as it sounds; flutist Yusef Lateef made the tune something of a jazz hit back in the day.) To a degree that she hasn’t always achieved on her solo discs (this is her fourth), Carter makes all these things sound like they belong next to each other, with a consistently lovely, lyrical tone and all-acoustic arrangements.
On record, she doesn’t engage in extended displays of improvisational virtuosity. Carter seems to believe that is what live shows, not records, are for — so it’s a sure bet that listeners who want to hear what happens when the violinist is put on the spot will find the answer this weekend at Laurie Auditorium. With any luck, she’ll back herself so deeply into a corner that she will have no choice but to throw down and play as if sheet music had never been invented.