George Graham Reviews Regina Carter's "Southern Comfort"
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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1760

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Regina Carter: Southern Comfort
by George Graham

(Masterworks Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/26/2014)

Though not frequently used in rock and pop, the violin is one of the most ubiquitous of instruments around the world. The staple of European classical music, it has turned up in other cultures around the world, from Celtic to Klezmer, it has had some part in jazz, including fusion, and as the fiddle, it has a key place in American folk music, from old-time traditional to bluegrass, and in country music. Most practitioners of the instrument tend to concentrate on a particular style. This week we have the latest recording from an artist who has been putting her violin to use in a broad cross-section of styles. It's Regina Carter and her new CD is called Southern Comfort.

A Detroit native, Regina Carter started playing music early. Her cousin is the well-known jazz saxophonist James Carter. Her first instrument was the piano, but when she preferred to do improvisation over strict interpretation of classical pieces, she moved to playing violin, learning on the Suzuki method, which Ms. Carter now also teaches. She was playing with the youth division of the Detroit Symphony in her teens and attended master classes by classical virtuosi Itzhak Perlman and Yehudi Menuhin.

Partway through her classical study at the New England Conservatory of Music, she decided to switch to jazz violin, and transferred to Oakland University in Michigan. After spending time in Germany, where among other things, she worked as a nanny while teaching violin on an American military base, she returned to the US in the late 1980s and began to attract attention on the New York scene, working as a backing musician for pop artists like Billy Joel, Dolly Parton and Lauren Hill. She began recording jazz and fusion albums under her own name, which further increased her profile.

In 2001, she was invited to play a concert in Genoa, Italy, using the famous 1743 violin that was used by the legendary violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini, and subsequently recorded an album with the instrument, blending classical and jazz repertoire.

In 2006 she was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called "genius award."

Her recorded output has remained eclectic, a fact cited by the McArthur Award committee.

On her new CD Southern Comfort, Ms. Carter explores her Southern roots. Although she was born and raised in Detroit, her parents and grandparents came up from the South, and he mentions in her CD notes spending summers at her grandmother's in Alabama. She obtained to some of the field recordings made of American folk music by Alan Lomax and others and picked some of the material she felt might represent some of her heritage, and gave them to various arrangers, mostly jazz musicians, to reinvent. The result is a fascinating almost all-instrumental album that is neither authentic folk nor jazz, but a creative hybrid of stylistic fragments scrambled and assembled in distinctive and yet appealing ways. Likewise, her approach on her instrument is neither her refined classical style, nor the old fiddle sound one would expect on traditional Appalachian folk songs.

Most of the material consists of traditional pieces, but there are two mid 20th century songs by Gram Parsons and Hank Williams.

Ms. Carter appears with a fairly small group that is in various combinations on the different pieces. Most often heard are Marvin Sewell on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass, Will Holshouser on accordion, and Ms. Carter's husband Alvester Garrett on drums.

The CD opens with one of the traditional tunes, Miner's Child which is given a treatment that is a curious blend of the old-traditional with the rather atmospheric. <<>>

There are a couple of tracks that weave in what sounds like old field recordings. Trampin' is one of the more distinctive tracks on the album, with samples of a historic recording with a very contrasting funk beat. <<>>

One of the two pop songs on the album is Gram Parson's Hickory Wind, which features a slide guitar emulating a pedal steel, to capture the mood of an old country song, though Ms. Carter's violin technique takes this out of the realm of country music. <<>>

With accordion frequently featured on the album, the combination of fiddle and squeeze box evokes the sound of Cajun music, and there are a couple of tracks that show that influence. One is called Blues de Basile. <<>>

On the other hand, the traditional tune I'm Going Home is given a melancholy, contemplative sound, also featuring the accordion. It's very nicely done. <<>>

The other pop song on the album is Hank Williams' Honky Tonkin' which Ms. Carter and her colleagues unexpectedly give a kind of low-down New Orleans groove. <<>>

A familiar traditional blues See See Rider is rendered almost unrecognizable, though the arrangement keeps it fairly simple. <<>>

A song that was apparently a lullaby, Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy is given another of the album's more contemplative treatments, this time minus drums. <<>>

Though this album is mostly acoustic, there is one track that gets rather plugged in. I Moaned and I Moaned, is an old spiritual which features Marvin Sewell on cranked up guitar. <<>> It features some of the album's only vocals toward the end. <<>>

The CD concludes with probably its most eclectic track, a medley of Death Have Mercy and Breakaway. The wide-ranging Regina Carter comes through on this piece with an interesting Latin beat, in this arrangement by jazz vibist Stefon Harris, who doesn't appear. <<>>

Regina Carter's new CD Southern Comfort is another in her long stream of interesting and eclectic albums that put her violin into lots of different musical contexts. The premise of this album is to explore music from the South in a search for her family's musical roots, and she brings in the kind of eclecticism for which she has been recognized. The small sympathetic group brings these arrangements to life, while Ms Carter's violin playing is tasteful and understated. It would have been easy for her to show off with high-energy bluegrass or country fiddling, or get into the harmonic complexity of her jazz background, but the mood of the songs is kept largely intact, while the instrumental combinations and some of the supplemental influences make it quite edifying.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." It's all well recorded with a slightly dark sound that is ideal for this kind of music. A big plus is that there is minimal compression on the recording. The music can ebb and flow in volume, and was not cranked up to be screaming loud all the time, as most CDs are these days.

Though her musical journey has been a stylistically varied one, Regina Carter is generally categorized as a jazz violinist. Southern Comfort is hardly a jazz or a classically influenced album like her previous work. But it's one of her most interesting, musically adventurous, and ultimately enjoyable albums.

(c) Copyright 2014 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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