An Interview with Regina Carter
A Conversation with violinist
by Mark Ruffin
The hottest jazz violinist to come along since Jean Luc-Ponty is a classically trained young woman from Detroit whose career is on the rise with her second solo album and her first for Verve Records, “Rhythms Of The Heart.” Since leaving the all-female quintet Straight Ahead, Carter has had to fight battles with the jazz police and with her first record company Atlantic. Since arriving in New York she has also picked up some pretty impressive notices playing in some exciting groups including that of Oliver Lake, Steve Turre, Quartette Indigo and Cassandra Wilson’s Traveling Miles group. Miss Carter is currently represented on Turre’s new album “Lotus Flower” and Miss Wilson’s number one smash “Taveling Miles.” “Rhythm of The Heart,” comes out this month.
JazzUSA: Tell me about the new record.
RC: The concept of this record is a rhythmic concept, all the different rhythms that I like to play. That’s more how I approach music, more from a rhythmic concept than a melodic concept. I chose composers whose music I really enjoy. I didn’t write any of the tunes on this record. But I have an Afro-Cuban tune by Steve Turre, a West African piece by Richard` Bona. I did a ballad that Betty Carter made famous “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most.” I did a tune in the style of “Poinciana” that Kenny Barron wrote, “Cook’s Bay,” and a swing tune, “Lady Be Good,” and I did one of my favorites from Motown, Detroit, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.”
JazzUSA: Let’s not forget Tadd Dameron please.
RC: No, no there’s also some Tadd Dameron and also another Kenny Barron tune. So that covered the hard bop and the be-bop.
JazzUSA: You know judging from your musical past with Atlantic Records, our readers who know your history may not know exactly where you’re coming from musically on an album as important as your first one for Verve. Is the record straight ahead?
RC: It’s acoustic. It’s music. It’s jazz, and all these people need to get over that. It’s not smooth jazz, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s acoustic music and it’s very valid music.
JazzUSA: Can you do a valid “Papa Was A Rolling Stone?”
RC: It’s a raggae tune, but I improvise on it. So that’s the element from jazz is the improvisation on it. But it’s a classic tune from Motown. The thing is that when people look at a lot of jazz hits from say, even Coltrane, “My Favorite Things,” what was that? We know it as a jazz tune, but lets look at where it really came from.
JazzUSA: Absolutely, and jazz musicians have been playing?
RC: Popular music forever.
JazzUSA: And I do like the movement of people in our generation exposing, even the older heads, with songs we grew up with like, “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and different rhythms.
RC: It’s a classic Motown piece that people instantly recognize. I played Sweet Basil’s in New York and I had my first chance to play there with an acoustic group. Before they wouldn’t let me play there because they thought I was too electric and doing the smooth jazz thing. So I was doing the Eddie Harris tune, “Listen Here,” and in the solo one day, that tune “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” popped into my head, so I played a piece of the melody in the solo and people recognized it and responded. And supposedly only the jazz police come to Sweet Basil’s and they responded to it. So I tried it again. I purposely did it somewhere else and people responded and that’s what made me say, ‘you know what, I love that tune. I’m going to record it.’ I think when people can get past all those barriers that they put up for themselves, people will like that tune, because it was a great tune in it’s day. They aren’t going to look at it and say, well that’s not jazz or that is jazz. And the thing is that jazz is in so much trouble these days, especially acoustic jazz, that we need to get people anyway that we can. Even when I was doing smooth jazz, I did Billie Holliday’s “Don’t Explain” and I had a lot of people come up to me that had never heard of Billie Holliday that said my favorite tune on that record was “Don’t Explain” and I say to them, you need to go check out Billie Holliday. Who knows how many people went and checked her out and from there and checked out some other music. In jazz I find that people don’t really do that. They don’t go out and research. What music I have found interesting in that regard is the blues. People of all ages, whether they started with Robert Johnson or somebody extremely new to the music, whatever they pick up and hear, it makes them want to go out and research other types of blues. Whereas, in jazz, people don’t do that, and I think a lot of that comes from the industry, and a lot of it comes from the musicians, because we’re dividing our music and therefore dividing our audience. That’s hurting us. That’s hurting the music.
JazzUSA: You know I find that a lot of musicians are open, and it’s the industry putting up standards and barriers.
RC: Well some musicians, when they start talking about this is jazz, or this is traditional jazz and that’s not jazz. We as musicians need to be careful of that.
JazzUSA: Well you have to fight that battle within a record company too, don’t you?
RC: Oh yeah, of course. But I just believe now in doing honest music and I let them fight that battle. I quit trying to take on that crusade. And if a radio station will play me, thank you. If they won’t, I’m sorry for them, because their listeners are missing out on something. Not saying that my music is all that, but I think that they’re missing out.
JazzUSA: Are you originally from Detroit?
JazzUSA: So Detroit is a big part of everything.
RC: Yes (laughs)
JazzUSA: Detroit’s history is so rich, not only the Motown thing, but the thing in the 50’s was just incredible. I mean Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers?
RC: Donald Byrd, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter?
JazzUSA: Betty Carter, The Jones Boys. It’s a long list. How did you incorporate all of that into who Regina Carter is?
RC: At the time when I was growing up in Detroit, and I think a lot of people come up and say, ‘at my house, we listened to jazz, or we listened to this.’ In my house, we listened to everything. First of all, I was studying European classical music, so I had to bring home stacks of that music and listen to it every day. My day was listening to, I guess, easy listening radio, which is where I first heard Wes Montgomery (laughs). And my brothers were listening to Motown, Stylistics, Parliament-Funkadelic, and we all went to the symphony. Plus we lived near an area where I heard a lot of Arabic music and we had a big Latino population, so I heard a lot of Latin music. When you growing up like that you don’t say, ‘oh, this is this kind of music, and that is that.’ And one radio station used to play some of all of it, WJZZ.
JazzUSA: Yep, the late great ‘JZZ (Ed. Note-Check our back issue on the death of America’s last great commercial jazz station)
RC: Yeah, right. So you grow up with all those influences and you don’t sift through those, they just all become a part of who you are, and they’re all part of who I am and what comes out of me. I don’t police myself.
JazzUSA: A lot of folks from Detroit don’t police themselves. What is it about Detroit?
RC: I think it’s because we have all those influences in such a close range. It’s not like we have to drive so far. It’s just right there and you just hear it. So you don’t even think of it as separate music. You just think of it all as music. And if it’s in you, it’s just in you. I think it’s until you go other places where they don’t have maybe all those influences or it’s so sectioned off that they look at it us with a question mark.
JazzUSA: I know a classical violinist who is a friend of yours, Sylvia Morris,
RC: Oh yeah, that’s my girl. We came up together in Detroit. We both started at age four. There’s a whole group of us, there’s a couple of more that are in the Chicago Symphony, we all started together and Sylvia kept up with the classical music while I switched over to jazz.
JazzUSA: Did your high school have a jazz band?
RC: Yeah, I sat in and read the alto parts. Sometimes they would write out a chart specifically for violin, and in college I did the same thing.
JazzUSA: What college?
RC: It was the New England Conservatory of Music.
JazzUSA: Oh yeah, that’s right, (keyboardist) Rachel Z was your roommate. RC Yeah.
JazzUSA: How did all women jazz group Straight Ahead happen?
RC: Well they had been together for some years and then they had broken up and I had just moved back to Detroit from Europe and they were looking for a sax player and they couldn’t find one. So Miki (Braden), the vocalist that had put that band together called me up and asked me if I wanted to join. And I did and it was a great way for all of us to work on whatever musically we needed to work on without having to feel pressure of, you know, we only have this many hours to rehearse, or being uptight that we have to work on this part of our playing. It was a great forum to work on a lot of things and we were all really good friends and I think that added a lot to the music as well.
JazzUSA: Were you well know in Detroit? How did Miki know you? Were you playing in bands, playing in clubs?
RC: Not then, I think I had just come back. I don’t know. Maybe they knew of me before I left. I think actually Miki had seen me in a program before I left for Europe. Plus she knew a cousin of mine and she heard I was back in town, and the bass player, our parents go way back.
JazzUSA: What were you doing in Europe?
RC: Trying to find myself. (laughs) I’m still looking for her.
JazzUSA: No matter what town you in.
RC: Yeah, they always say, she just left. (laughs)
JazzUSA: Straight Ahead fought that same battle, that record company battle. Some records were pretty even and some you didn’t know where you guys were coming from?
RC: That was the record company, because when we first got there (Atlantic Records), we were doing acoustic music and then they hired Lenny White to produce the records. I think he felt that we weren’t strong enough to be a traditional acoustic group. So he had us to the most electric, almost like 70’s stuff. Then the second record, one of the people in the record company wanted us to do some traditional stuff, but of course we had been signed into the Black music department, not the jazz. So we had to satisfy everybody. So that’s the one where we did the traditional and?
JazzUSA: That was the album “In The Tradition?”
RC: Yeah, in the tradition, out of the tradition, left of the tradition. (laughs)
JazzUSA: So what spurred the decision to separate from the band and go solo?
RC: I just wanted to do a solo project before I even joined the band, and when I moved to New York they were supposed to move to New York and they never did. So it was very difficult for me to maintain the gigs with them. As a group, I think it was easier for them because they were working so much in Detroit, so I think that everybody would have to had come together.
JazzUSA: En masse like all those folks did from Detroit in the 50’s.
RC: Yeah, but I waited and waited and nobody ever came. So I was there and I was starting to get calls from people that I have always wanted to work with and I wasn’t going to turn those gigs down after I had gotten them. So it was becoming a bit of a sticky situation. I figured after a couple of years, since I wanted to do a solo career, I figured it was the perfect time- I had done two records- they weren’t coming to New York and I wasn’t going back to Detroit. I figured it was the best time to just sever the ties.
JazzUSA: So you did an album with Atlantic, produced by Victor Bailey. Why did you leave Atlantic and what led to the record? I mean did you go to Atlantic and say ‘hey, I can’t wait for them, I want to do a record.’
RC: No they came to me early on and kept asking me to do a solo record, to which I kept saying no, until after the second group record and I said okay, I’ll do this. I felt it was time and I felt like it was time for me leave the band and Atlantic had first option. I couldn’t just leave.
JazzUSA: Now how did you get to be with what used to be the best jazz record company in the world, although they still have a chance to be?
RC: They better be. JuazzUSA: Well, with this merger, there are some bad apples.
RC: Isn’t that the record business? I went through a lot to get to Verve (laughs). There was some interest from both sides and I felt like I had done all that I could do at Atlantic, because they had fired so many people at Atlantic, including all the people who knew anything about me and my music. And the people that they started assigning didn’t know anything about jazz or me, and I just felt like a step-child. So I moved on over to Verve and it took us a awhile. I basically signed and they said ‘here do the record.’ I thought dang let the ink dry, but it was fun. JazzUSA: Then you get to Verve, they’re sold and you’re in the middle of another record company political upheaval,
RC: Yeah, I’m starting to feel like it’s my karma (laughs). Here we go again. Why me?
JazzUSA: Well if it makes you feel any better, they made you a priority when all the shifts and takeover started. In fact in January, you were pretty much all you could get out of anybody at Verve or GRP. Aren’t you a part of Quartette Indigo?
RC: Yep. I took John Blake’s place. He was in Steve Turre’s group as well and John introduced me, because I studied with John for some time. He introduced me to Steve when I went to Boston to hear one of their gigs. Then John decided he wanted to take time to do more with his own group. So he left Steve and Akua (Dixon, cellist and Mrs. Steve Turre) and they hired me. Actually in Steve’s group I took his place and he stayed a little longer in Akua’s quartet and I took her sister Gayle’s place, and after awhile, another woman from Detroit, Marlene Weiss moved to New York and actually she took John’s place.
JazzUSA: Well it sounds like you guys had a lot of fun making Steve’s last two records but the Cassandra Wilson tour last year sounds like it was too incredible, and you got some real big hands.
RC: Oh yeah, we had a blast. And that’s the thing about Cassandra, she’s not afraid to share that space. She will push you out there. Some people are really funny if you get a little bit of attention. She has never been like that. In fact, she would school me and take me aside and say ‘you need to do more of this or that.’ So I really have a lot of respect for her.
JazzUSA: How did she help to shape the track that she’s on, on the album, ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone?’
RC: It’s really funny, because I had planned on her for another tune, the gospel tune “Precious Memory.” I was going to do it just with bass, guitar, voice and violin. And at the last minute, we didn’t have time to do that track and “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” was already done as an instrumental. And (co-producer Richard) Seidel kept saying ‘I think you should just use her on that,’ and I said okay. I went to her house two days before the session and dropped off the tape and just said, ‘here you go. You got it, just do what you do.’ We had done the tune and not even ask her if it was in her key because it wasn’t the tune she was supposed to be doing. Now the tune is in a reggae form and the tune is so wordy. It has a lot of words.
JazzUSA: It was the Third of September?.
RC: Right, and trying to fit all of that in there, I told her don’t even try to sing it like the original. I just wanted her to do what she does. I told her don’t even think about talking it. That was the only thing I said to her. And Cassandra just did what Cassandra does.
JazzUSA: Are you going to tour in support of the record?
RC: Yeah. Right after May, because I’ve got some European dates and Canadian and West Coast dates.
For more information on Regina Carter’s new album
“Rhythms of the Heart”
visit the Verve Interactive Website.