Detroit-born Regina Carter has covered a remarkable amount of musical ground during her 15-year career. She's performed Astor Piazzolla's tango, "Oblivion," on Nicolo Paganini's treasured 18th-century violin. She's played with the legendary Aretha Franklin when the Queen of Soul has done hometown performances. And on her latest album, Reverse Thread, she delves into the folkloric traditions of African music.
Carter is clearly not one to stand still. She was 2 years old when her older brother's music teacher stumbled upon her playing "Country Gardens" on piano by ear. By age 4, she was enrolled in a Suzuki music school, where she was given her first violin. Surprisingly, Carter didn't get around to discovering jazz until her teens, when a friend played her albums by Jean Luc Ponty, Noel Pointer and Stéphane Grappelli.
"So my first introduction to jazz," says Carter, "was by way of violin players."
Since then, she's received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and worked with artists ranging from Mary J. Blige to Billy Joel. In the latter case, she tells me she was recruited at the last minute to play with the pop star on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.
"After we played it, Rosie goes — on television — she goes, 'Wow, your violin player! What's her name?' And Billy had no clue. It was hysterical."
So did she shout it out to them?
"Yeah I did," she says, laughing. "You can't be shy!"
We caught up with Carter last week, as she and her bandmates — African kora player Yacouba Sissoko, accordionist Will Holshouser, bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Alvester Garnett — were preparing to go out on the road with their repertoire of folk songs from Mali, Uganda and Madagascar.
Indy: Did you go into recording the Reverse Thread album with a preconceived idea of how it would sound, or did it evolve along the way?
Regina Carter: No, I didn't have preconceived ideas, because I wasn't even sure how I was going to approach it. I'd just always wanted to do a quote-unquote "world music" record. I knew I wanted to have another string instrument, other than violin, something soft. I wanted this record and this band to be more on the acoustic side. And I didn't want to have a piano. I thought, let's just have an accordion as the chordal instrument.
Trying to find a kora player was one of the most difficult jobs I had, but [producer] John Blake's sister introduced me to Yacouba — she'd studied with one of his teachers — and he's just a real gentle soul and a wonderful player. We were trying to take tunes that are very beautiful but very simple, and not overplay them, if you will, so that their natural beauty will come through.
Indy: Looking back on the history of jazz violin, the artists I'm familiar with are Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins, Stuff Smith, Jean Luc Ponty, and that's pretty much it. Why has it been such an unusual combination up until now?
RC: Well, a lot more jazz violinists are out there recording now than some years back. I think when record labels really had the power and were signing musicians, they were not interested, for some reason, in jazz string players. So it made it much more difficult for string players to get their material out and for people to know about us.
And so you still have people saying, "Oh, there's not that many of you out here," when in fact you now have whole university curriculums specifically for jazz string payers. And as more people hear it, maybe we'll eventually catch up. We won't be those miscellaneous instruments anymore!
Indy: So how are the carpal tunnel treatments coming along after playing Paganini's violin?
RC: [Laughs.] The thing is, that violin is so much bigger than mine, it would take me probably six months to a year to really get used to that instrument. But I only had a couple of hours for a couple of days to get used to it, so I knew my limitations and just tried to work within that. There were two more [of Paganini's violins] there that were smaller, but they're not famous like il Cannone. It has such a huge sound, hence the name, the cannon.
I don't know how my friend in Genoa pulled that whole thing off. I was shocked, just getting to play the violin itself, and getting to play jazz on it. The mayor of the city was a huge jazz fan, so that was a huge plus for me. But then getting the rest of the community to agree, there was a lot of back and forth. A lot of people were outraged that I was going to play jazz on this violin.
Indy: They were genuinely upset that someone who plays jazz was handling the instrument?
RC: Some people were, yeah. Some people thought that, you know, it's a lesser music, it's gonna devalue the violin. You know, there's ignorance everywhere in the world, as we see every day.
Indy: It's a good thing you didn't drop it.
RC: Listen, I wouldn't be talking to you now. [Laughs.] I'd be famous, OK?
Indy: So in addition to your own work, you've played with Aretha, Mary J. Blige and Billy Joel. When you move into those different musical areas, is there a different mindset involved?
RC: To me, it's like speaking a different musical language, or maybe just a different dialect of that language. I just have to think, "OK, you know, I'm going to Germany now," and then really brush up on the pronunciation of the words and the sentence structures and so on. You know, put on some CDs and practice a little bit before going in. It is a different language, but those are languages that I'm comfortable with.
Indy: And finally, I'm sure you know that, at last month's Grammys, Esperanza Spalding beat out Justin Bieber ...
RC: Woo-hoo! And the world is in shock! We need to be shocked sometimes.
Indy: So do you think that this might be the beginning of even a small sea-change, artistically if not commercially?
RC: No, unfortunately, I don't. I mean, this is just me — what do I know? I don't know anything. I'm grateful that it happened, because I think she's really creative and I love what she's doing. But I don't see a big shift in people starting to pay attention to jazz artists.
I mean, if something like that happens again next year, or if the jazz portion of the Grammys was actually televised? [Laughs.] Then I would say we're seeing a shift.