Daniel Carter is a septuple threat. He can play the tenor, alto, and soprano saxophone, the trumpet, the flute, and the clarinet. That accounts for the first six threats, the last one I reserve for his ability to improvise with pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker with the same amount of ease that most others use to order a cup of coffee.
Sometime in April of 2017, these three titans of modern jazz took part in a program at Tufts University called “Art, Race, and Politics in America”. A screening of the documentary The Cry of Jazz was followed by a candid Q & A with Carter, Parker, and Shipp. After that, the music started up, and Seraphic Light is the end result. For close to one hour, the three musicians improvised off of one another. If you’ve spent any amount of time following the careers of either one of these gentlemen, you will know that they possess the unique ability to make spontaneous improvisation sound like deep compositions.
The album is divided into three tracks, each one named “Seraphic Light” followed by a Roman numeral. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good for me to try and pin down the defining characteristics of, say, “Seraphic Light I” versus “Seraphic Light II”. It is worth pointing out that there is no gap between the first two movements, which means that Carter, Parker, and Shipp played for a solid 42 minutes before letting the audience sneak in some applause. The nature of the playing is less about jamming over an established vamp than it is a musical conversation between the three of them. Daniel Carter and Matthew Shipp have an especially unique connection where both are constantly shifting what they’re doing but are still able to respond to one another from one moment to the next.
Carter moves between his wind instruments with no fuss. Shipp sparingly uses the trick of pumping one of the piano’s pedals to give his chords a muted sustain. William Parker has played with just about everybody over the past 40-plus years, so you know that he has no trouble keeping up with these guys. The dynamic range of these bursts of spontaneity is surprisingly diverse. One moment, Shipp’s fingers will make the piano rage as Carter and Parker do their best to stay on top of the noise. Five minutes later, there will be a tender moment between sax and piano that will sound like it was composed deliberately.
The press material with Seraphic Light tells me that this level of jazz telepathy is in short supply nowadays. If that’s indeed true, then it’s a certainly wake-up call for me. I’ve been taking musicians like Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Daniel Carter, Hamid Drake, and the late David S. Ware for granted for too long. These are guys that can pull music out of the air and still manage to make it sound special. Imagine if that was the norm?