Regina Carter hit the newsstands at the end of 2001 by becoming the first non-Classical musician and first African American to play the renowned Paganini violin “Il Cannone”. Paganini: After a Dream, a figurative title that alludes to the album as the showcase housing the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, features the violinist playing “Il Cannone”, a feat matched only by a handful of violinists in the world. Make no mistake in underestimating the magnitude of this achievement.
Nicknamed “Il Cannone” (the Cannon) for its grandiose and booming voice, the violin boasts an impressive heritage worthy of royalty. It was crafted by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Guarneri in 1742 and owned by the legendary classical violinist Nicolò Paganini, whose talent was such that rumors circulated that it came from the devil, to whom Paganini had sold his soul. Upon Paganini’s death in 1840, the violin was bequeathed to the city of Genoa, where it now resides with its own set of bodyguards and caretaker. An audience with the violin requires square dancing around various commissions and institutes with more pomp and circumstance than it takes to meet the queen.
The violin is physically bigger than average; of German descent, its sound box is shorter but thicker, and belly is more rounded to produce a fleshier, fuller sound. The vibrating string is longer and that’s what gives it the resonating bass and sweet upper register quality. The sound that Carter produces is delicious; her playing is flawless with a technique that underlines her classical training.
After playing the violin in concert in Genoa to hyped up worldwide media attention and multiple standing ovations, Carter capitalized upon this by recording Paganini: After a Dream 10 months later. The album consists of several modified pieces from the French Impressionist movement of the early 20th century, a piece by the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, a light cinematic piece by Ennio Morricone, a composition by pianist Werner Gierig and a Carter original. The musical content represents a departure from the innovative jazz that Carter has produced to date that has announced her as a worthy successor to the likes of Stephane Grappelli and Jean Luc Ponty. The official guardians of the violin insisted that only classical music be recorded on the album, suggesting that playing jazz on the instrument would be degrading and an insult. This has a slight detrimental effect on the album, where Carter’s answer was not to “play like a classical player”, but to “bridge the two worlds”. When you listen to the album, at times it appears that the bridge is one of those rocky wooden swing bridges with several missing planks. In particular, the opening track seems to be more of a fighting compromise on Carter’s stance as a jazz musician.
The first track “Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte” by Maurice Ravel plays on the ear as being a little too Disney-esque, to tell the truth. The opening begins with piano and soaring strings in unison with a sound that appears to have been transported straight from Fantasia. The hauntingly simple melody that follows is the perfect entrance for the violin. Its voice is commanding yet mellifluous, but unfortunately it doesn’t benefit from the rhythmic play arrangement. Coupled with the Andrew Lloyd Webber-style piano and orchestral violin backdrop, it comes across as a shameless attempt to tug at your heartstrings to delve into the center of your emotional angst. It improves as Carter segues into a jazz/salon interlude, but on the whole the piece doesn’t seem to hold itself together.
Pianist Werner “Vana” Gierig’s composition, “Healing in Foreign Lands”, is overly sentimental and lacking in substance. That said, it’s probably the one piece on this album where, if you can get past the uninspiring melody, you can really sink your teeth into sound of the violin. The slow tempo with long sustained notes enables you to hear the purity of its tone, the richness of its timbre, the beauty of its soul. Now who’s being sentimental? Yes, but the violin truly is all that and more.
There are three tracks that really stand out as positively scandalous. In a juicy way. In a way that makes your toes curl. The first is “Pavane” by Gabriel Fauré. The original melody is almost lost in the unrepentant jazz treatment, but the key is the sexy upright bass with its solid pizzicato support. The second track is Debussy’s “Rêverie”, where Carter swings and slides her way around without a care in the world for bureaucracy or stylistic impediments. The third is Luiz Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus”, a light R&B soundtrack number with a gorgeous lyrical cello part that intertwines with the violin melody.
This was an ambitious project that, despite the numerous restrictions, Carter pulled off with panache. The music may not be wholly engaging, but as I said before, make no mistake in underestimating the magnitude of this achievement. Listen to history being made.