Reviews of Recent Recordings
A quarter century after his death, John Carter (1929-1991) remains woefully underappreciated. He’s a giant as a modern jazz composer, for his five-album epic Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music, a reimagining of the Africa to America diaspora that’s Ellingtonian in its sweep, and utterly original in its sound. (But only the first and least representative volume, Black Saint’s Dauwhe, is currently available.) The other revolutionary Carter, the one who concerns us today, is the clarinetist who rethought the instrument’s capabilities, and extended its upward range almost an octave.
Carter’s body of work can be roughly divided into two unequal periods. The first starts in 1969, when he began recording, mostly on alto or tenor saxophone, in partnership with cornetist Bobby Bradford, in the quartet/quintet sometimes called the New Art Jazz Ensemble. The second period takes in his mature works, including the 1982-‘89 Roots and Folklore series, its unofficial preamble A Suite of Early American Folk Pieces for Solo Clarinet (Moers), and the quintet albums Variations (Moers) and Night Fire (Black Saint). There is overlap between these periods, not least because Bradford was involved in everything just mentioned save the solo album, as well as an occasional duo and quintet. But the rare and newly reissued Echoes from Rudolph’s, the lone release on Carter’s Ibedon label, recorded mostly in 1976, finds him on the cusp of his mature style. It documents the moment when his clarinet conception bloomed, and other reeds (and flute) became superfluous. In the years to come, that roughhewn clarinet sound would help him find his increasingly idiosyncratic voice as composer.
Not that he was new to clarinet in 1976. He’d played it (and flute) with Bradford sometimes. From the earliest versions of Carter’s signature ditty “Sticks and Stones” in 1969, many of the elements of his mature blackstick style were already in place: the dry-wood timbre, the teetering sprints across the high and low registers and the register break, the restless hot-foot motion. He had started to feature it more by the 1971 concert that surfaced in Mosaic Select’s 2010 Carter-Bradford box. But the extreme high notes weren’t there yet.
Carter’s two-and-a-half-year weekly residency at the South Los Angeles gallery Rudolph’s Fine Arts Center seems to have been the watershed. With Bradford off in London for most of 1973, Carter formed a trio of his own, with drummer William Jeffrey, who later played on various Carter and Bradford records, and John’s son Stanley Carter on bass. Until 2015, Stanley’s only other available recording was an obscure LP by ethnomusicologist Steve Loza and the Cal Poly Jazz Band. But then came the Bradford-Carter 1975 live NoUTurn (Dark Tree) with Roberto Miranda also on bass. The new Echoes from Rudolph’s includes the original LP (mastered from a clean test pressing – there are a few little pops), supplemented on disc two with a 1977 broadcast by the same trio.
John Carter liberated the clarinet the way geometric-abstractionists liberated the grid of the canvas; he made its own inherent textures part of his subject. The clarinet wants to squeak, and Carter ran with that tendency.
On the LP, when Carter began to season his pastoral “Echoes from Rudolph’s” with fleeting eruptions into the troposphere, he announced his forceful new style. And when bass and drums leapt in to join in fierce conversation, he aimed higher still for the sheer roiling excitement of it all. Carter liked a rowdy ensemble sound years before the Roots and Folklore octets. Jeffrey drums in waves, and doesn’t let cymbals wash out his dry textures, and he hooks up well with Stanley Carter. The latter is a minor marvel on bass, strumming chords, answering clarinet melodies, keening with a bow. He’s supportive and independently melodic, sometimes at the same time, in the tradition of 1964 Gary Peacock. (Alas, not long after Stanley gave up the bass for more gainful employment.) His groaning arco grounds his father’s highest flights.
Here and elsewhere, every once in a while John plays a squeak that sounds unintended, but not necessarily unwelcome. Carter had discovered the clarinet’s sturdy upper partials by studying his mistakes. “If I hit a note that squeaks and it’s a good solid sound,” he said in 1989, “I try to figure out what note it is, and remember the fingering.” He is not quite all the way there in 1976. On his altissimo entrance on the room-rattling roof-raiser “The Last Sunday,” his highs are less steady and confident than they’d soon become.
His art song “To a Fallen Poppy” shows the hazards of very slow tempos – the rhythm players rummage around, just for something to do. But the distant flat-affect vocal by Melba Joyce (the onetime Mrs. Bradford) is pleasantly spooky, and presages Terry Jenoure’s occasional vocals in the Roots and Folklore suites.
John Carter plays saxophone on “Amin,” but he’s now switched from alto or tenor to soprano, where the high notes are. But his clarinet style is too idiosyncratic to allow a simple transfer of conception from straight-bore wood to conical metal. His soprano voice has a distinct character, a little sweeter and perhaps more sentimental. It sings in a more conventional way, but blends less well with the bass’s wood tone.
Sound quality on the Rudolph’s recording is pretty rough – it was the first and only album Carter put out himself – but the sound on the newly issued air check is rougher still. There’s a 27-minute medley of “Echoes” and “Poppy” where the rhythm players solo at great length; Carter plays soprano on the latter. More interesting is the 41-minute suite of five Carter compositions, all but one (a reprise of “Amin”) unidentified. The first tune partly revolves around a colloquial, downward sliding figure that Stanley echoes, glissing on double bass – embracing that fretless instrument’s natural tendencies. Around 15 minutes in, as one piece gives way to the next, John plays clarinet and soprano solos back to back; you can hear for yourself how much easier it was for him to break with precedent on the former. Clarinet was a more open field.
That broadcast was from March of 1977, after the bulk of Echoes from Rudolph’s was recorded, and it marks Carter’s last recorded saxophone work (unless Tom Lord’s discography is accurate, and he played soprano on one track of that Steve Loza LP in 1983, long after the rest of the album was recorded). That July, he recorded the last piece for Rudolph’s, the clarinet solo “Angles,” replacing a (presumably lost) soprano solo. Here he shows off his precise and modulating split-tones, and full range of action-painter special effects. Carter had a way of sounding at once hopelessly excitable and thoroughly in control, as he careened across the instrument’s ever-broadening range. From here, it’s small steps to his 1979 solo album, and the rest of his golden age.
Again, it’s no mystery why Carter left saxophones behind. The coarse-grain sound of his clarinet – to borrow a phrase from Wilfrid Mellers’ survey of American music, the sound of an axe in the wilderness – could not be beat. It suited, and prompted, the rustic air of so much of his music to come.