Imagine this, Regina Carter urged the audience: The clean living room of a family home in Detroit. A much smaller version of herself ambling towards a piano, sitting down to play a tune – a tune that she had heard her brother practice hundreds of times – by ear.
Her brother’s teacher turned to ask where she’d learned to play it.
Nowhere, her mother answered. Or rather, this was the first time she’d tried the melody out.
“I was 2 at the time,” she finished, drawing tempered laughs and murmurs of wonderment from the audience.
The memory – one of many on the power of improvisation – came as part of a talk Carter gave at the Yale Center for British Art. Called “Down Home: The Musical Heritage of the American South,” it was the first of two events Tuesday evening that focused on Carter’s illustrious and complex career as a jazz violinist. The second event, a concert drawn largely from her new album Southern Comfort, followed at 8 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall. Both were brought to audiences by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
If there is one thing to know about about Ms. Carter, it is this: She is filled with laughter and music, and both are often in concert with each other.
The laughter, which has stayed with her through the most trying of situations, bubbles up from her throat and spills over into the whole room in a warm, inviting way, as if to say this is my story, please stay a while to hear it.
The music lays down roots, the thick and hearty kind that take pleasure as they furrow through the rich soil and onward into new territory.
After releasing I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (2006) an emotional homage to her late mother that explored the music of the 1920s, Carter reached into new territory: her father’s life and Alabama upbringing, and the aural landscape that accompanied it.
Unlike the saccharin, hard-to-stomach liqueur, her sound with Southern Comfort (listen here) is best taken straight, and by the tumbler (if not the bottle). Carter and her ensemble (Will Holshouser, accordion; Marvin Sewell, guitar; Chris Lightcap, bass; Alvester Garnett, drums) were dynamic Tuesday night: with their full-bellied sound came wisps of west African ballads, hints of deep southern twang, glimmers of Motown, and big, airy gulps of Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III.
If you closed your eyes during one of Garnett’s Hurricane Katrina-inspired pieces, which included a stunning drum solo and strains of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” for violin, the photographs of Ralston Crawford, Lee Friedlander and Milt Hinton that captured an era glinted back.
Carter’s violin was also capable of more voices than seem possible for the instrument. (Click on the video for a taste.) One moment it had the garrulous laugh of a fiddle; the next, the throaty, near-cry known to Mozart and Bach, European classical figures whose influence still cropped up in her folksy, narrative work. As the violin morphed, it spoke to a long and thoughtful process of self-exploration: Carter has gone so deeply, so profoundly inside herself for this project (as she did in Reverse Thread) that listening was a semi-religious experience.
That thorough self-exploration, she explained before the concert, can be traced most readily to her family home in Detroit, where she built the foundation on which she now so steadily plays. Trained in the European classical tradition in piano and the Suzuki method in violin (“it was my mother language, if you will,” she explained when asked if it still influences her work), she latched onto jazz and improvisation when she discovered them as a young adult.
“In high school, ninth grade, I met one of my dearest friends ... We sat together in Spanish class, and she would talk about Eddie Jefferson, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis. ... I had never heard of them. And she brought me records. ...Jon-Luc Ponty ... and Noel Pointer. And I took those home. I had never heard violin outside the European classical tradition, and I heard that. ... I was like, you can do this with the violin? It’s on now. It was a whole new world that I found to be completely fascinating.”
She also credited cities for her musical genesis, especially the one from whence she came.
“I grew up in Detroit during a time where ... there were so many cultures that migrated with the automotive industry and with Motown. We have a large Greek population. We have a large Chaldean population, a large Polish community ... So you’re going to school with all of these people, and sometimes going into their homes I would hear their classical music. ... So I was influenced by sounds, and very intrigued by a lot of them.”
“Southern Comfort,” meanwhile, was entrenched in sweet summer memories of Alabama – fishing, riding in a flatbed truck, waking up to all sorts of smells in a bed she shared with her cousins – that coiled and uncoiled across the stage as Carter played. “It was an entirely different world from Detroit,” she said.
Her sense of time and place contributed to an ability to make the audience long for home, wherever home was for them. “People either recognize the tune or they recognize something of it,” she said of her piece “Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy,” getting straight to the heart of her deep, bluesy sensibility.
It has brought her through some of the darkest moments, and also some of the brightest: a lawsuit from a music festival she couldn’t make because she was caring for her then-dying mother; a chance to play Paganini’s violin; and her recent MacArthur Genius Grant.
The key to it all, beyond a string of long, persevering days in Detroit that started with piano practice and ended with violin?
“If you have a passion, you follow that,” Carter said. “And the universe makes a way for you to.”