James carter is a throwback to the days when saxophonists walked with a certain swagger, had their own signature sounds and didn't need microphones to be heard. What makes his debut, JC on the Set, so remarkable is not a matter of chops but of depth. Carter has a conspicuous gift for the entire post-Coltrane jazz vocabulary and a genuine affection for pre-Charlie Parker saxophone techniques, too.
In fact, Carter seems to play the entire history of the saxophone within a single solo. With unflagging lyricism and commanding sound, he takes flag-waving lines like those in "Baby Girl Blues" or "Lunatic" and evokes the dueling saxophones of a thousand cutting sessions. The effect can be daunting, as he crowds idea upon idea like a crush of blood cells trying to squeeze through one capillary. It is a youthful shortcoming for an such an uncommonly mature musician, but it never undercuts the power of this record, as Carter shows prodigious emotional facility, muscular tone and a stunning sense of swing on tenor, baritone and alto.
Carter covers the Ellington standards "Caravan" and "Sophisticated Lady" on baritone – the latter all suave elegance and lyric restraint, the former visceral, gusty and free – and he suggests the entire Ellington reed section all by his lonesome. On "Hour of Parting" he invokes the pear-shaped romantic inflection of alto giants Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, while his rendition of unsung tenor giant Don Byas' "Worried and Blues" is husky yet tender in the macho tradition of Coleman Hawkins and his children.
As a composer, James Carter favors the tenor's heraldic blues legacy. On the title tune and "Blues for a Nomadic Princess" he employs old-time slap-tonguing effects one minute and then ascends into the stratosphere with fervent chromatic cries the next – from swing time to no time and back with no loss of focus.
Carter's band is excellent, playing with tremendous grace and integrity. While JC on the Set is an imposing debut, it will be fascinating to see how Carter evolves. But even at this early stage in his development, Carter is the most exciting young saxophonist to arrive on the scene in the past 25 years.
* 1991: Tough Young Tenors: Alone Together * 1994: J.C. on the Set * 1995: Jurassic Classics * 1995: The Real Quietstorm * 1996: Conversin' with the Elders * 1998: In Carterian Fashion * 2000: Layin' in the Cut * 2000: Chasin' the Gypsy * 2003: Gardenias for Lady Day * 2004: Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge * 2005: Out of Nowhere * 2005: Gold Sounds (Tribute to Pavement) * 2008: "Present tense"