The jazz violin still hovers uncertainly on the fringes of the jazz tradition. It has never been quite accepted as a core jazz instrument, despite a constant thread of innovative exponents from Stuff Smith onwards. There is a racial politics to this. For most listeners jazz violin means the light swing styles of Grappelli or Venuti or the jazzrock, electric violin of Ponty. The classical violin and the country fiddle also tend to produce connotations of “whiteness”. If recording techniques had developed earlier we would have a very different view, as all the evidence points to the violin/fiddle as a key factor in C19th African-American music. Don Harris, Ray Nance and Gatemouth Brown, not to mention the soulful strings of Motown, Chess and Philadelphia, all showed how effective violins could be in jazz arrangements, but a suspicion has lingered. The disapproval in the phrase “Charlie Parker With Strings” still echoes down the corridors of jazz history.
Regina Carter is unlikely to completely still those echoes but she is the latest artist to demonstrate that in the right hands the violin and jazz are well suited.“Motor City Moments” is her fourth album and was in her words, “a fun project”. Indeed it is. It is a delight and proves that you can still make straight ahead, easy on the ear, mainstream jazz without either getting all anti-modern or going down the Smooth Jazz road. Built around the concept of music associated with her native Detroit and dominated by her effortless soloing skills, the music on offer here is sweet, satisfying and never sickly.
The album opens with a sprightly version of Thad Jones’ “Don’t Git Sassy”. This swings well and is much enhanced by a bass clarinet solo supplied by the formidable James Carter (a cousin,it turns out). It is the one track on the album where another soloist steals the show, which for all the liner talk of “group projects” is very much Regina’s. This is not to belittle the other considerable talents on offer here, simply to stress that this is a showcase for the jazz violin before anything else.
Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Mess with Mr.T” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” take the Detroit connection into familiar and much-loved territory. The former is superior and the soundtrack’s essential ‘70s jazzfunk groove provides a platform for some evocative and assured playing from Ms. Carter. “Higher Ground” is likeable but adds little to the original. Motown is an obvious source, given the album’s theme, but unless you associate Detroit with the cha-cha or the tango then “For Someone I Love” will seem odd. The excuse is that composer Milt Jackson is another Detroit born jazz great and the song’s Cuban treatment allows Carter to show her ease with a number of diasporic styles. The form is a danson not tango, I am told, but it sounds like a tango and has nice little classical flourishes before some exquisite pizzicato sends it off into cha-cha heaven. This is an absolute gem, capricious and teasing, and puts to shame the rather tired Latin cuts you so often get on contemporary jazz records.
There are three ballads, one self-penned, one by guest pianist, Barry Harris and “The Theme From Spartacus” (included because of Yusef Lateef’s memorable take on it). All are worthy but her own composition, “Forever February”, is the pick. Moody and melancholy, this is the most impressionistic piece on show and has future standard written all over it. Carter uses the violin’s traditional emotional power well without sacrificing a jazz or improvisational sensibility. That, in fact, is the key to the overall success of the endeavour.
The remaining three tracks are the sadly neglected Lucky Thompson’s “Prey Loot”, performed in blues swing style, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” (she tap-danced to it as a kid, apparently) and “Up South”, a blues duet with guitarist Russell Malone. Both of the latter are charming, if a little coy. You have probably worked out that the “concept” is a pretty fluid and at times tenuous one but as it gives Carter a chance to shine in a variety of settings, who cares?
Carter’s regular group performs a selfless and seamless task as collective accompanist, guests such as James Carter and Marcus Belgrave, a trumpeter she has a long connection with, are used wisely and not just as star name-dropping. In all this project shows a maturity of thought and execution that will do Carter’s already high profile no harm at all. Her eclecticism is unforced and the refusal try to be too forcedly contemporary gives the album a timeless rather than old-fashioned quality. Unless you absolutely loathe the fiddle in any of its manifestations, give this a listen. Maybe the new century will look more kindly on the jazz violinist than the last. If it does, Regina Carter will not be low on the list of those who most influenced such an overdue re-assessment.